Gardening How-to Articles

Bonsai Styles

Observe old trees in nature, and you will see plenty of variation. Trees grow upright or slanting, in groups, pairs, or alone, out on plains or clinging to the sides of mountains. They are found in arid, moist, hot, freezing, still, and windy environments, and everywhere in between. Wherever they grow, trees are also affected by animals and diseases. All the stresses that nature places on trees are reflected in their shapes. Bonsai artists look at what nature creates with these factors and work to emulate it when shaping a tree, but they also add their own vision to produce a beautiful bonsai. That’s why a bonsai is so much more than just a tree in a container.

The Five Basic Styles

Bonsai styles can be grouped in many ways. Five basic forms derive their names from the tree’s angle of growth from a container and provide a common starting point for exploring styles.

Formal upright

Formal Upright Style | Chokan

The bonsai of this style are reminiscent of trees growing in nature in an open location without stress. The trunk line is vertical with the apex located over the center of the trunk base, and must taper from base to apex. Each sucessive branch is, or appears to be, shorter than those below it and when the distance between branches decreases as they near the apex.

Informal upright

Informal Upright Style | Moyogi

This style is probably the most popular one in the bonsai. It depicts a tree in nature that has suffered from the elements, with a trunk line showing contortion and branches that sag. In nature, this shape is created by the constant breaking of the trunk line by storms, ice, snow, or the actions of animals and insects. In creating this style, bonsai artists start with a tree that already shows the stresses that nature has imposed on it, or create the trunk movement by the use of wire and other methods.


Slanting Style | Shakan

Looking at trees in nature, one often sees individuals that have been tilted to one side by the forces of wind or water, or ones that lean at an angle reaching for sunlight. These trees have developed strong root systems on one side to counter the weight of the tree’s slant to the other side. As artists develop a bonsai in this style, they must carefully observe its counterparts in the real world to duplicate their shapes. For this design to work, balance must be achieved visually by size and placement of the roots and branches.


Semi-Cascade Style | Han-Kengai

This style is meant to depict a tree hanging from the side of a cliff by the seashore or a stream. The tree grows over the edge of the pot, and the trunk bends downward beyond the rim of the container but not below its base.

Full cascade

Full Cascade Style | Kengai

This bonsai style follows the rules of semi-cascade except that the cascading line falls below the base of the container. This requires that the bonsai be displayed on a stand so that the trunk line can extend as far as it needs to. Aesthetically, the tree must never touch the surface of the stand upon which it is displayed.

The following styles of bonsai are modifications of these five basic styles.

Broom Style

Broom Style

Broom-style bonsai resemble the old trees found along city streets or in orchards. A deciduous species is groomed to form a crown of radial branches that show a great deal of ramification (branching twigs), thereby creating a beautiful reflection of an old tree. Some broom styles have a main trunk line that extends from the base of the trunk to the apex; others have branches radiating from one central point, as shown in the drawing.

Exposed Root Style

Exposed Root Style

In nature, rain and weather can erode soil from the base of a tree, slowly exposing its roots over the years. Bonsai artists like to exaggerate this effect and show a great deal of root structure. This effect must be developed over a long period of time by baring only a bit of the roots each year and allowing the exposed area to harden off.

Root Over Rock Style

Root Over Rock Style

When a seed lands in a crack in a rock and finds enough soil to survive, the plant’s roots may eventually grow to spread among the thin layers of soil and moss across the rock. In another scenario, the roots slowly grow over and around the rock to the soil below, partially encasing the rock. In bonsai, this effect is created by spreading roots over a rock and then allowing the roots to develop. One way to do this is to bury the rock among the roots when the plant is potted, and let them grow for a period of years before slowly exposing them over time and allowing them to harden off, as done with the exposed root style.

Double Trunk Style

Double Trunk Style

This style depicts a tree with two trunks. The trunks, usually of two trees of different diameters, have grown together at the base, and the two trees are styled as one. No branches are permitted to grow between the trunks.

Raft Style

Raft Style

In the natural scenario this style seeks to emulate, a woodland tree is damaged by a storm and blown over, breaking the branches on the downward side. Over time, roots develop from the trunk resting on the soil, and the remaining branches (rising vertically from the undamaged side of the trunk) grow to look like new trees connected by the old trunk. In bonsai, a one-sided tree is wired and laid horizontally on soil, branchless side down. By nicking the bark to expose the cambium layer on the underside of the trunk and dusting it with rooting powder, the growth of roots is facilitated. A straight trunk usually forms a straight line of trees; using a curved trunk creates a more interesting pattern of trees that resembles a small grove.

Clump Style

Clump Style

When a cone or fruit containing several seeds falls in fertile soil and several trees grow at the same time, they may merge to form a tree with multiple trunks. Each trunk naturally bends outward from the group to reach for the light. The clump style in bonsai is created by planting a number of seedlings tightly together and styling them to form outward-reaching trunks.

Forest Style

Forest Style

Using five or more trees, artists can create bonsai resembling small or large forests. Sometimes the forest is styled to look as if it reaches far into the distance. By placing smaller trees in front and progressively larger ones behind, a far-view perspective can be achieved. Another perspective—that of a viewer amid the trees and looking at the forest stretching beyond—is created by placing larger plants in the front. In all cases, use trees of different diameters and heights and arrange them so that no three trees are placed in a straight line when viewed from the front or the side. The trees are all placed at different distances from each other. The overall effect is a canopy resembling a scalene triangle.

Literati Style

Literati Style

The literati style of bonsai is meant to show the essence of a tree. A literati has a beautiful, thin, and unique trunk line. Branches are kept to a minimum. This style is often thought to be the most difficult to achieve. Only a bonsai artist who has mastered all the rules and created great designs can successfully break the classic rules and create elegant literati.

Weeping Style

Weeping Style

In nature, weeping trees like willows are often found in damp areas and along streams and lakes. Bonsai artists replicate this vision by the careful use of wire to train a tree like a willow or weeping cherry. To create the form in miniature, wire each branch so that it bends upward, and then create a severe downward bend to style the weep.

To learn more about BBG's bonsai collection, visit C.V. Starr Bonsai Museum.


  • Aram January 16, 2018

    Hi, very nice. I am from Iran, and I do bonsai with local trees here in my city of Esfahan. I believe one must chose local trees that live easily without a glasshouse and a lot of care in hot and cold weather. I enjoy working on my bonsai.

  • BBG Staff April 5, 2013

    Hi Richard: There are many styles in bonsai. When beginners think of bonsai basics, they often look to Japan for their info. The “official” styles in Japan were meant to be simple, understandable guidelines, similar to basic addition, like 1 + 1 = 2. But just remember that there are other types of arithmetic, like subtraction, division, and multiplication out there too! The styles that many think of as “official” are just some of the basic Japanese styles typical of their landscape. China, for example, has many other named forms and styles as well, including ones like this. As bonsai grows in popularity in the West, people are also incorporating shapes that are in their landscape. What we call the “flat top” style could also be called the Pierneef style. Hope this helps. 
    Julian Velasco, curator, C.V. Starr Bonsai Museum

  • Richard Owens March 30, 2013

    Do you think the Pierneef will ever become an official style of bonsai?

  • BBG Library Staff February 12, 2013

    David: Depending on where you live, “evergreen” could include boxwood and rhododendron, but we are basing our response on the assumption that your bonsai is a conifer. In general, conifers should be transplanted every three to five years, but the time to repot your bonsai in a larger pot also depends on the species of plant, its root growth and its age and size. Diane Relf, a horticulturist at Virginia Tech, says, “… Junipers can be repotted at any time during the growing season because they grow throughout the season. Pines and most other evergreens must be repotted during the late winter before they show signs of new growth.”

  • BBG Library Staff February 12, 2013

    Hi, Jesse: Fast growers including willow, poplar, sycamore, and tamarix, though requiring more work during their first season, will allow you to test the results of your bonsai technique and environmental conditions with several different species if you like. Trees with small leaves and flowers, such as olive, sophora, mimosa, ginkgo, crabapple, and most conifers tend to make well-balanced bonsai. Slow-growing trees make the best bonsai over the long term, such as species of oak, conifer, and ginkgo. Suggestions for indoor beginner’s species include Natal plum (Carissa macrocarpa) and an evergreen vine, Asian jasmine (Trachelospermum asiaticum).

    Printed resources include Growing Bonsai Indoors, edited by Pat Lucke Morris and Sigrun Wolff Saphire (Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 2008) and Successful Bonsai, by David Squire (Firefly Books, 2006).

  • David Wilcox January 9, 2013

    I have an evergreen bonsai that I bought earlier this year. When should I transfer the tree to a larger pot?

  • jesse jeet laish November 15, 2012

    Can you provide the names of trees that will be most suitable for bonsai?

Submit a Comment

Please keep your comments relevant to this article. Comments are moderated and will be posted after BBG staff review. Your email address is required; it will not be displayed, but may be needed to confirm your comments.

Image, top of page: Claire Hansen