Styles of Bonsai

Bonsai is a miniature of a tree in nature. Bonsai styles have been developed to represent the different ways trees grow in nature. Not all trees can be grown in all styles but should follow the styles that most closely match their natural growth habits. These styles are useful for all trees grown as Bonsai - conifers, deciduous, flowering, fruiting, etc. 

There are five basic styles with some variations: 

  • Formal Upright These trees have a very straight trunk with the apex (the top of the tree) directly above the base of the tree. The shape of the tree is typically triangular and branches on either side of the tree are roughly equal in length as you move up the tree. This tree can require more skill to do correctly than some other styles since mistakes in the trunk and branches are readily spotted.


  • Informal Upright This tree, like the Formal Upright, has its apex, for the most part, over its base. In this style, however, the trunk will typically have some curves in it unlike the straight trunk of the Formal Upright.


  • Slanting The Slanting style can have a straight trunk or curved trunk but what typifies this style is that the apex is no longer over the base but off to one side or the other. These trees tend to look like they have been blown off vertical by the wind, or the earth sank on one side tilting the tree. These trees can show a lot of motion since they sometimes look like they are falling.


  • Semi-Cascade These are trees that emulate those on the sides of cliffs or mountains where the majority of the mass of the tree is hanging over the edge of the cliff or growing down the side of the mountain. A Semi-Cascade tree does not hang below the bottom level of the pot.


  • Cascade These are the same as the Semi-Cascade except the tree extends below the bottom level of the pot.

In addition to these five basic shapes, there are variations that fall into several other main categories:

  • Broom These trees have an upright trunk with branches growing up and out with foliage in a fan or umbrella shape.


  • Windswept As the name implies, these simulate trees growing where the wind blows in one direction for most of the year forcing the branches and foliage to grow with the wind in one direction. Often trees such as this are found on beaches, cliffs, and mountains. The trunk is often leaning in the same direction.


  • Driftwood These trees are found where conditions are very harsh, such as on cliffs or mountains where winds are high, snow is deep and heavy, and dry conditions or hurricanes may prevail. They epitomize survival under very difficult and stressful conditions. Typically, a large portion of the trunk has died with only a small vein of living bark to feed the foliage that remains.


  • Exposed Root The idea is that as a tree grows the soil is washed away through erosion and, after some time, exposes the roots. These roots then harden to form an extension of the trunk, which happens when roots are exposed to sun and air.

  • Root Over Rock The roots of the bonsai must be grown in such a way that they grip the rock or stone securely for both the stability of the tree and the integrity of the piece.


  • Literati Considered by some the first Bonsai to be kept and trained long ago, this tree has only a couple of guidelines a long, thin, interesting trunk with a minimum of branches and foliage. It is a somewhat esoteric style guided more by a philosophy than guidelines.

The above hand sketches are copyrighted and were graciously provided by HBS member Alex Leong. The images are not to be printed, transmitted, stored or reproduced in any way without written permission from the artist. Much thanks to Alex for his excellent work and dedication to the Houston bonsai community.

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