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Design Elements in Bonsai Trees

Updated on April 28, 2011

Slanting Bonsai Tree with a Weathered Look

Photos of Bonsai Trees at San Diego's Japanese Friendship Garden,  via It's a Jungle Out There
Photos of Bonsai Trees at San Diego's Japanese Friendship Garden, via It's a Jungle Out There | Source

Design Elements in Bonsai Trees

The ancient art of bonsai cultivation has been honed over centuries by creative gardeners in Japan and China. The bonsai gardener applies knowledge of plants and human design elements in harmony with nature to grow a living tree in miniature form, to create the impression of space and serenity in a tiny landscape. In this way, bonsai allows even a small urban home to contain an impression of harmony with nature and an illusion of space. Some artists have even gone further and produced award winning sculptures based on bonsai.

Some Interesting and Imaginative Bonsai Landscapes

Formal Styles in Bonsai Design

Throughout the history of bonsai, stylistic preferences have varied from grotesquely unrealistic to naturalistic. Over time, certain traditional styles and formal classifications have emerged, based on standard characteristics such as the overall height of the tree and the line and angle of the trunk.

For example, the Formal Upright (chokkan) style requires the tree to have a perfectly straight, upright trunk, whereas the Informal Upright (moyogi) style allows a curve or gentle slant in the trunk. In comparison, a more pronounced slant is required for the slanting (shakan) style, with the apex of the trunk no longer being over the base. A cascade (kengai) style tree, curves downwards, out and below the upper rim of the pot, while a semi-cascade (han-kengai) style curves up and then down, but to a lesser extent, without going lower than the pot it is planted in. The hub page on bonsai styles gives more detailed examples of formal bonsai styles, with photos.

Bonsai trees are also categorized by size, ranging from miniature trees at less than six inches tall, through small and medium size ranges to large trees (for bonsai!) at over 24 inches tall. Size categories are often listed as a key feature of bonsai trees for sale.

A walk in a bonsai garden, featuring many beautiful and well cared for bonsai trees

Design in Bonsai Care and Planting

Traditionally, bonsai trees are planted in odd numbers, and grown with an overall shape that suggests asymmetrical balance, such as a scalene triangle. To create an impression of perspective, the trunk should ideally taper in width as it gets taller, and grow to a height of approximately six times the width at its base.

Bonsai kits usually include a suitable pot, whose color should harmonize with the bark and leaf colors of your bonsai tree species. Obviously, all trees are different, and so some will have brighter colored leaves, or more tonal contrast between the leaves and the bark. For an extra dash of bright color, you might prefer flowering bonsai trees, some of which can be in flower many times a year if you're lucky.

The texture of the bark should also be considered as a design element, as some species have textured bark that is better for creating the impression of age and maturity that is prized in bonsai specimens.

If you're not purchasing a mature bonsai tree or growing one from a kit, you can read 'Starting a Bonsai', which discusses growing one from cuttings.

The art of the bonsai gardener is to create a design that unifies all these visual elements for a harmonious natural appearance and a serene effect.Some beautiful examples can be seen in San Diego's Japanese Friendship Garden (see below), or click to find your nearest bonsai society.

Bonsai Miniature Forest

Photos of Bonsai Trees at San Diego's Japanese Friendship Garden, via It's a Jungle Out There
Photos of Bonsai Trees at San Diego's Japanese Friendship Garden, via It's a Jungle Out There


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