Bonsai Care

Know Your Styles: A Guide to Bonsai Configurations

Walking through the Museum, you’ll find plaques with titles, donor names and dates next to most of the bonsai. But do you know how to tell which style our trees are exhibiting?

To help you wow friends on your next visit, Museum curator Michael James walked us through the main styles of bonsai on display in our pavilions: cascade, upright, root-over-rock, forest and windswept. James said these configurations simplify and categorize trees’ common forms or growth habits after enduring forces of nature – like wind, ice and snow – that shape trees in the wild.

“These are just styles that mimic what’s found happening in trees growing in harsh conditions,” he said.

The formal upright style is a simple design: the tree’s apex stands directly over the base of the trunk, and the tree is perfectly straight. James said the informal upright design is a bit looser and more whimsical than formal upright. The tree’s apex remains in line with the base of the tree, but the trunk twists and turns on its way to the top.

An informal upright bonsai.

An informal upright bonsai.

Forest style displays are created to mirror the different heights and trunk thicknesses found in natural forests, so the trees should differ randomly in size, James said. He added that the displays are usually arranged in odd numbers, ranging from about five to 11 trees.

A forest bonsai display.

A forest bonsai display.

Seeds that land on a small patch of fertile soil germinate and send roots down into the earth to create a tree. But over the years that bit of soil can erode, exposing the rock underneath where the tree began to grow. This process creates the root-over-rock look.

A root-over-rock style bonsai.

A root-over-rock style bonsai.

To replicate this style, bonsai masters will plant a bonsai on top of a rock. In some plantings, the masters attach the bonsai to the rock with wires and the tree lives entirely on the rock, growing in a special soil mix.

In other cases, as the above picture demonstrates, the rock and attached tree are planted in a container filled with soil, and the bonsai roots grow into the soil. In this instance, each time the bonsai is repotted, the master may lift the rock and attached tree higher in the container and remove some of the soil, exposing more of the roots and the rock.

A full-cascade bonsai.

A full-cascade bonsai.

Bonsai in the cascade style also come in two configurations. In the semi-cascade design, the trunk of the tree might lean over and drop below the lip of its pot. But the tip of bonsai in full-cascade reaches below its container, to emulate a tree clinging to a cliffside.

A bonsai in the windswept style.

A bonsai in the windswept style.

The Museum has one tree that displays the windswept look: the iconic Chinese elm. Branches of windswept bonsai grow in one direction and look as if the tree is growing while enduring a strong wind blowing from only one side.

James said some styles are more common in certain trees, but many trees can be trained into myriad configurations. One exception is with cascade bonsai. Trees in the cascade category are often flowering trees or conifers, like pines and junipers, which are found in mountainous areas. Their low hanging branches are pulled down by the weight of fruit or snow and ice that accompany high-altitude conditions, creating the cascade look.

He added that some styles fit specific occasions, as certain designs are more formal than others.

“If you were displaying a bonsai for a special occasion you would use a formal tree, which would be very stately, maybe austere – very proper,” James said. “But an informal tree lends itself more to having a party or a big celebration. Something fun, maybe even more playful.”


Looking to learn even more about bonsai, and get your hands-on experience while doing it? Join our Museum Staff and Volunteers as they offer several Intro to Bonsai classes this July. Learn more here.

DAVID RIZWAN: "FAREWELL TO A BUSY SUMMER"

My summer apprenticeship has certainly been keeping me busy, leaving very little time for these blog posts! As the waning heat of the summer transitions into the coolness of the upcoming autumn season, watering requirements begin to lessen there is a bit more time for pruning, wiring and other tree work. Here are some of my favorite trees from my recent work:

Eurya (Eurya emarginata) Continuous Tightening

This eurya from the Japanese Collection is one of my favorite bonsai on display in the museum. It has a very stout trunk that almost resembles the “sumo” style that seems to be currently in vogue within the bonsai community. I have to admit that I, too, enjoy this style and the power that it presents within the confines of these tiny trees. E. emarginata have small, glossy leaves when reduced, but they can grow to be quite large if the trees are allowed to run and gain vigor. Therefore, consistent pruning is required to maintain the tight shape and tiny leaves that we enjoy about this bonsai. I’ve now pruned and wired this tree a few times over the summer and have been typically following up a pruning with a pinching shortly after to prevent the energy from redirecting fully into the remaining buds and blowing the new shoots out of proportion. I’ve found that this gives quite dense and even growth throughout the developed pads.

Eurya before pruning work to tighten pads

Ezo Spruce (Picea glehnni) Post-Growth Season Pruning

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After growing and extending all season, spruces can be cut back to shape. With these, we must be very careful to cut back to new buds to allow the cut tips to continue to grow in next years’ extension. I could locate good buds to cut back to across the entire canopy for the tree, so all the tips should continue to remain healthy while maintaining the crisp presentation intended in this tree between now and the next growth season.


I’m now in the final week of my apprenticeship. It’s been an incredibly busy summer full of new experiences, fun travels, and a ton of new learning. I’m very grateful to National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the US National Arboretum for the opportunity to work on and develop my skills using some of the best and most prominent bonsai in the country, and I’m very appreciative of the support that Toyota has offered to the National Bonsai Foundation in supporting with funding for this wonderful apprenticeship.

Following the completion of my apprenticeship, I’ll be moving to a new home in San Antonio, TX, where I’ll begin delving into my own personal bonsai garden space while continuing my journey with bonsai. The climate in Texas will be entirely new to me and will present many new challenges to manage watering and sun exposure in the extreme heat of the summer, but compensates for those with a longer growing season to develop and refine material and a far milder winter season. I intend to continue sharing my work on social media and various online platforms, so please do not hesitate to send me requests if you’re interested in seeing how I progress and where I travel throughout my journey.

Thank you to everyone who has supported me up to this point.

David