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Five Basic Bonsai Styles

There are five basic bonsai styles, with many variations. The first five are the foundation for all other bonsai shapes.

Included in the list below are the Japanese words for each bonsai shape.

If you are a beginner, there is no need to memorize them.

However, you will frequently see and hear these words used in many bonsai activities, literature and other sites.

1. Formal Upright - Chokkaan

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This first of the five basic styles is defined by the perfectly straight trunk line. The branches likewise are often more severe than in other shapes.

The first branch should be the most developed and should be positioned at roughly a third the height of the tree.

Another defining asset is, it tapers all the way up the tree. Finding material to use in designing such a bonsai is not always easy.

Look for plants that have this straight trunk in nature. Some varieties of juniper, the tropical tamarind fruit tree  (as shown here) and larch are just a few trees that grow erect most of the time.

The second basic bonsai shape is much less formal and much easier to find plants to create the style.

2. Informal Upright – Moyogi

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This second of the basic bonsai styles has a softer look and appears to be less contrived in its shape.

Curves and bends in the trunk and the branches should have the look of something that would actually happen in nature.

(In the photo shown here there is a faux "lightning strike" known as shari.)

The top of the tree (referred to as the apex) is positioned over the center of the base of the tree.

This helps to make the bonsai look upright, as opposed to the next style.

3. Slant – Shakan

A slanted trunk can lean left or right. It's important the roots appear as if they are holding this tree (or trees) in place.

The bonsai should never look as if it will fall over. This style is not as easy as it may look.

In extremely slanted versions, it's not unusual to prop the tree with a rock when it's first styled. The rock will be removed once the roots stabilize.

Slanted trees are also good for creating more advanced bonsai styles called "windswept."

4. Cascade - Kengai

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The most frequent analogy used for this tree is -- “cliff hanger.”  In fact, that's almost the only way this style could grow in nature.

The growing tip of your chosen plant should extend below the bottom of the container.

Juniper is perhaps the most popular plant used for this style, but there are many others that will work.

Shown here is a unique Lantana bonsai, by Ed Trout, Florida USA

5. Half or Semi-Cascade - Han Kengai

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Very similar to the “full” cascade, however, this shape hangs below the lip of the container but not extend below the bottom of the pot.

In some very exotic looking semi-cascades, the trunk often extends almost horizontally to one side.

More Basic Bonsai Styles

The above descriptions are the basis for creating the five basic bonsai styles in the Japanese manner. To continue reading about styles ...

go to More basic Bonsai Styles

Where to Go From Here

Also read about Chinese bonsai (penjing)  - which is very different.

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