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Bonsai Styles for Beginners: 5 Basic Styles for Your First Trees

November 23, 2020Beginners, Styling

Bonsai tree in fall

The practice of bonsai features a lengthy list of formally recognized tree styles. This article explores five of the most basic and well-suited bonsai styles for beginners to try with their first trees. It also offers tips for choosing a style.

As you begin to create your own bonsai trees, one of the early and most fundamental decisions you must make for each plant is what style it should be.  

The practice of bonsai defines approximately 30 formally recognized tree styles. However, those new to the hobby should keep things simple and avoid overwhelm by focusing on one of five foundational styles for their first few projects.   Let’s take a look at these five styles, then explore some questions beginners might have.

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Formal Upright Style

The formal upright is a good bonsai style for beginners.
A pine as a formal upright bonsai.

A straight, upright trunk characterizes the Formal Upright, or Chokkan, bonsai style. The trunk tapers from a wide base to a narrow apex. Its branches are thickest and longest at the bottom and finest and shortest at the top. 

Informal Upright Style

The easiest bonsai style for beginners may be the Informal upright style.
An informal upright pine bonsai.

The Informal Upright, or Moyogi, style of bonsai is similar to the formal upright in that the apex of the tree is situated directly over the base of its trunk. However, the informal upright style features curvature in the trunk line of the tree. The curves might be gentle or pronounced, adding a sense of movement to the overall impression of the tree. This is one of the easiest bonsai styles for beginners because most trees have some naturally occurring curves.

Slanting Style

The slanting bonsai style is a basic style appropriate for beginners.
A bonsai in the slanting style.

The Slanting, or Sokan, style generally has a straight trunk that is set at an angle. The tree’s apex is located to the right or the left of its base. This style is reminiscent of trees in nature that grow in a slanted fashion in order to seek out sunlight. Although the trunk slants, the branches of this tree style generally grow parallel to the ground. 

Cascade Style

The cascade bonsai style is a favorite of beginners.
A cascade-style bonsai.

The Cascade, or Kengai, is an elegant style of bonsai. The tree is typically (but not always) planted in a pot that is tall and narrow rather than in the usual wide, shallow pot. In this style, the trunk of the tree dips below the rim and flows down the side of the pot. The tree’s apex falls at the bottom of the pot, or even past the bottom. Cascade bonsai evoke the idea of a lone tree growing on a rocky mountain crag or beside a waterfall. This refined style evokes the classic image of bonsai, making it one of the most popular bonsai styles for beginners.

Semi-Cascade Style

Semi-cascade bonsai style
A lovely semi-cascade.

The Semi-Cascade, or Han-Kengai, style is closely related to the cascade. In fact, it might be thought of as a hybrid of cascade and more upright styles. When creating a semi-cascade, there are two approaches to styling. In one variation, the trunk might dip and flow partially down the side of the pot similar to the cascade style. It does not, however, extend to the bottom or below the pot.  In the second method, the main trunk extends outward, parallel to the ground. In this approach, the apex can dip slightly below the lip of the pot, but nowhere near the bottom. Semi-cascade bonsai pots are often deeper than a typical bonsai pot but shorter and wider than a cascade pot.

How do I know what bonsai style to choose?

Evaluate the tree from all angles and take note of its most interesting features. Think about which style might work best with the characteristics of that particular tree. Check out 3 Tips for Choosing a Quality Pre-bonsai for help with selecting trees with good bonsai potential. 

In many cases, the choice will be obvious based on the already-established growth pattern of the tree. If you have a stick-straight pine on your hands, it’s probably best to go for the formal upright and make it interesting with how you select and style the branches. If your plant has a straight trunk but grows at an angle, it would probably work best as the slanting style. 

In other cases, you might be able to envision more than one style that would work well with a particular specimen. Maybe your tree has graceful curves in its trunk, plus a long, low-hanging branch. That branch could provide the opportunity to train the tree in the cascade or semi-cascade style. Conversely, you might trim back or remove the low branch and create an informal upright style that emphasizes the graceful curved trunk.

As a general rule, newbies are best-served by choosing a style that works closely with the pre-existing characteristics of the specimen. Experienced bonsai artists often rework plant material in radical ways to achieve an envisioned style. However, those new to the hobby are better served when they focus on success with the basics first.

What if I don’t think any of these styles is a good fit for my tree?

If you can’t visualize your specimen in any of the five basic styles covered in this article, there are other recognized bonsai styles that might be a better fit.   Windswept, Literati and Broom styles are just a few of the alternatives to consider. A good bonsai book such as The Complete Practical Encyclopedia of Bonsai by Ken Norman can provide more information on recognized bonsai styles.

In Summary . . .

Those new to bonsai can find it helpful to choose from several of the simpler styling options for their early projects. We explored five basic styles and offered tips on selecting the most appropriate one for each specimen.

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