Bonsai Design Introduction

Basics of Design




Bonsai Design Introduction

by Lew Buller


There are enough different bonsai designs and names to confuse all but the experts. I intend to discuss the five basic designs at some length, and to the extent I have trees that show other designs, provide examples and their names. The five basic designs are formal upright, informal upright, slant style, half-cascade, and cascade.

If a few of the trees here seem familiar you may have seen them in Saikei and Art.


Bunjin–Abstract or free style (shown above)

It was a joke among club members that if you couldn’t do anything else with a tree, you could always make it into a bunjin. That shouldn’t be the case. The

procumbens nana shown here was the result of a long series of wiring. As much foliage as possible was left on the tree to build trunk size. 15 or more years old.

Ishi-zuke–Rock clinging style  

What did you expect? A finished product? That’s out in my garden; I thought you might learn more from an elm in its early stages. The stone came out of the Pacific ocean and I soaked it in water and rinsed it for 6 months to get all the salts out. The box originally reached almost to the base of the trunk; Slats were taken off and soil was removed slowly as the roots began to move down into the soil.

Elms will grow on rocks, but their roots are ropy and don’t grow down into the cracks and fissures of the stones. Fissured stones are better, as they will hold soil and allow the growth of moss. New branches tend to grow in all directions. They can be wired, but the wire should be removed in as little as 6 weeks. The pink bracts are from bougainvillea that shade the elm.

Korabuki–Multiple sprouts from a stump or “growing from the shell of turtle” 

This stump had several straight, thin vertical trees growing on it. I met with a group of bonsai friends and asked for suggestions. When they finished, I ignored them and cut all the vertical growth off and put the tree back in the garden to get new growth. Olives are hardy; I knew I hadn’t killed it.


Sharikan–Peeled bark trunk  

This olive was sold to me at a very low price, including the hand-made pot by Max Braverman, by a friend who had to return home to Europe. The tiny yellow dots are flowers; this tree both blooms and bears drupes. It does not like to have its branches cascade down. 

twin trunk

Sokan–Twin trunk

One of my favorite styles. Easily created by air-layering ficus at the point where two branches originate. The next steps will be to remove the tops, either by cutting them off or by air layering them off, and force growth lower down. With these trees, that takes a decade or so. The process has already begun on the tree at left.

Tako-zukuri–Octopus style

This is a Golden Monterey Cypress. There is a compete section on this tree in the Know Your Tree Series

Yose-uye–Group planting 

Other than putting the tallest trees in the center, this planting has no order. It may contain either an odd or even number of trees. It is intended to represent a section of a forest. If you have several different types of trees, you can mix them to together and create a natural mixed forest.

I encourage you to learn the traditional styles but I also encourage you to exercise your own creativity. After all, you are the ultimate audience. Try variations that don’t exist in books, both in shaping your trees and in showing them. In a club setting, you are likely to get some negative comments from people who think there is only one right way. As politely as you can, tell them to go to hell and keep your individuality.

Bunjin fascinate me, to the point I thought it might be interesting to try a double bunjin. Here’s the result at some forgotten point in time. The middle and right trunks need to be separated and the foliage pads grown out.

The stand for the Jasmine cascade shown at the Mingei (Folk Art) International Museum is an antique Korean Wedding Chest I have had for nearly 30 years. I don’t know how old it was when I got it.