The 5 Basic Bonsai Tree Shaping Styles


When just getting started, you need to keep in mind that there is no one “right” bonsai style. The goal when a shaping and creating your bonsai is trying to fashion a representation of a tree in its natural environment. How YOU visualize that tree is most important determining element in creating a bonsai masterpiece. To create your own bonsai, you just need a little simple instruction – it doesn’t require lessons from a bonsai master. You just need to follow your instincts to bring the bonsai you mentally picture to realization.

The exceptional characteristics, art in making, easiness of caring, and convenience in space are just few of the reasons why real Bonsai trees are the common choice of many plant lovers. The art of creating Bonsai trees started in Asia as early as the Han Dynasty and until now, the art of making and cultivating the miniature plants still lives. Even the West is now very interested in planting and caring for Bonsai trees. You may also want to cultivate and care for a Bonsai tree, but what classification would you choose?

You can choose the type of Bonsai tree depending on its use. These are the two major classifications of real Bonsai trees: indoor or outdoor. Most Bonsai trees are considered outdoor since most require enough sunlight in order to grow better. These are usually used to decorate your garden. Meanwhile, you may also find indoor Bonsai trees which are very common in different Asian restaurants. You can use this to ornament your house like the kitchen and living room. Anyway, you can have the outdoor Bonsai trees displayed indoor only that you need to regularly feed the plant with sunlight.

Making your bonsai tree look as natural as you can should be your main goal. When shaping your bonsai, let yourself be guided by the tree itself. If your bonsai seems to want to bend to the right, let the trunk do just that. Let the stand-out features of your bonsai guide your work. In order to hear what the tree is trying to tell you, just simply listen closely. Pay careful attention to the bonsai’s softly whispered suggestions – it will lead you to create a breath-taking work of art!


The best bonsai look like ancient trees.  Though it’s miniature in form, your bonsai tree should appear strong and mature. With the proper grooming techniques, even the youngest of bonsai can be made to look as if it has majestically weathered many seasons.

The diameter and the degree of taper of the tree trunk are the two distinguishing features that help a bonsai tree to appear developed and aged. The base of the trunk is usually very wide with the majority of bonsai styles, and the it will generally lead to a smooth taper as it reaches the tree’s top.

Bonsai trees are generally seen in one of two general styles, either the koten (classic) or the bunjin (comic or informal). The koten style displays a trunk that is wide at the base which tapers off at the top – the more difficult style is the bunjin which has a trunk characterized by a narrow, tapered foundation that widens as it climbs.

You need to bear in mind that you are working with a living plant when you begin your bonsai. You may find that your bonsai’s natural characteristics invite a certain style or styles, if you pay attention.   Whether your tree is slender and elegant like a maple or essentially upright like a beech, you can often train a bonsai into growing in several styles. Even bonsai that are particular suited to a certain style can be interpreted and cultivated in countless ways.

Bonsai trees can also be classified depending on their size. Tiny Bonsai trees or Mame has a size range that limits to three inches. Small Bonsai trees or Shohin have five to 10 inches in size. Kifu or medium Bonsai trees measure up to 16 inches. Chu/ Chuhin or medium to large Bonsai trees have 16 to 24 inches while the Dai/ Daiza or large Bonsai trees have over 40 inches in size.

With the many classifications of Bonsai trees, you can definitely choose the best plant for your house, your office, your business, or as a gift. Anyway, the beauty of Bonsai does not depend on its classifications since these trees are naturally beautiful as they are.

Aside from this Bonsai classification, you can also find a variety of this plant depending on their styles.

•    Chokkan, also called the formal upright Bonsai tree style, is distinguished with its upright, straight, and tapering trunk.

•    Moyogi. This is also called as the informal upright Bonsai tree style. Unlike the Chokkan, the branches and trunks for these Bonsai trees have curves and bends and never tilt towards the front. The trunk in Moyogi can tilt due to the wind force and sunshine.

•    Shakan. This Bonsai tree style is also known as the slant-style in English. The trunks of Shakan are also straight like those of the Chokkan. The only difference is that the Shakan trunk comes from the soil, bended at a certain angle. It can withstand elements like the sun and wind force. Shakan is usually created through wiring and commonly creates an amazing style with different slants and bends of the trunk and branches.

•    Kengai or the cascade-style. The branches of this Bonsai tree spread sideways instead of upwards, usually leaning lower than the pot’s base. You may see these branches as if they are caressing the ground.

•    Han Kengai or the semi-cascade style. This looks like the Kengai, only that the trunk of the Bonsai tree does not lean lower than the pot’s base. Han Kengai looks like a tree that hangs out perilously from the gully edges and cliff tops.

These are the most common styles of Bonsai trees. However, you can still find other Bonsai tree styles like the Netsuranari or raft-style, the literati style, Yose Ue or the forest style, and the Sekijoju or the root-over-rock style. You can also find the Hokidachi or broom style, Ikadabuki or multi-trunk style, and the Ishizuke or growing-in-a-rock style.

However, one thing you should never do is to try and force a style on a bonsai tree that is unaccustomed to it. Simple enhance and enrich the natural shape intended by your tree by carefully analyzing its natural growth patterns. There are five basic styles of bonsai trees: cascade, semi-cascade, formal upright, informal upright and slanting (a/k/a windswept). There is a unique beauty and peacefulness inherent in each of these styles.

What follows is a more complete description of the 5 basic styles of bonsai…

Formal Upright Style – “chokkan”

In order to train a bonsai to grow in a style like formal upright, you must raise and cultivate it in perfect conditions. The essential aspect of the formal upright style is having a perfect straight trunk, which tapers from the base to the top in a natural, even manner. No matter what direction the tree is viewed from, this style should appear to have symmetrically spaced branches which are naturally balanced. The formal upright is one of the more demanding styles.

Some great tree varieties to try and train in the formal upright style include pines, junipers and spruces.

You need to make sure that you can see approximately one third of the trunk when viewed from the front in order to create a true formal upright style. This can be as viewed cumulatively, through the arrangement of the branches, or from the base of the bonsai to its first branch.


There should be a distinct natural pattern with the general placement of the branches. The longest branch should be the one closest to the base, which is usually trained and trimmed to a length about one third the height of the bonsai. Almost in a right angle to the tree’s trunk, this will be the “heaviest” branch.

The branch directly above this is grown in the opposite direction from the first branch. The branches are trained into a tapering cone-like shape as the structure of the bonsai ascends.

The mass of needles or leaves that adorns the top of the bonsai is full and thick, expanding out so that, looking down from above the tree, one would find it difficult to make out the internal structure of the branches.

In an effort to give the appearance of “looking at the viewer”, the tip of a formal upright style bonsai leans forward with a slight curve. It is not necessary for the tree to be perfectly symmetrical, as some species will call for you to alternate the branches on each side as they ascend.

There is always a very distinctive tapered characteristic to the trunk and branches of a bonsai in the formal upright style. Every new year, one prunes the trunk or branch by cutting off the growing tip and reforming the apex by wiring a new branch into position to maintain the all-important taper. While training a bonsai in the formal upright style can be somewhat difficult, when the taper becomes gracefully prominent as the trunk begins to fully develop, the  breath-taking result is worth all the effort.

Recommended Formal Upright Species:

There are a number of plant species applicable for this specific form. Included in the list are the junipers, larches, pines, as well as spruces. The other alternative may include the maples, redwood, Japanese cedar, and cypress.

Recommended Formal Upright Techniques:

For a beginner to succeed in developing a formal upright style of bonsai, he or she should make sure that about one third of the trunks that grow upright should be noticeable from the front. Other than that, the branches should be kept in a pattern that goes like this: the bottom branches should be trimmed the longest and proportionate.

The width of the branches decreases when it comes to those that are growing up the bottom branch and through the tip of the plant. Just think about a cone-like form. That’s how the formal upright bonsai is grown.

To achieve the upright and proportionate position of trunks and branches, one should start cutting the growing apex of the branches and trunks off regularly. A new branch should be wired into a position for it to form as the plant’s tip of a formal upright.

Informal Upright Style – “moyogi”

In their natural habitat, these trees twist or change their angle past the breezes, shade, additional trees, buildings, or in the direction of sunlight. For an informal upright bonsai, its trunk needs to be a bit bent to the left or right, but this should never be up to the observer. This is true for all kinds of bonsai. The branches and trunk should not be angled at the observer while the bonsai is being surveyed from the front.

For this approach, test out a Trident maple, Japanese maple or almost any kind of ornamental or conifer tree you can think of. You will notice a major effect with any flowering trees or pomegranates. An informal upright bonsai pretty much employs the same standards as the formal upright bonsai, except for the fact that it is informal.


This type still necessitates an elongated trunk, although the angle of the trunk and branch placement are more informal and more similar to the way a tree appears when subjected to the elements at a young stage in its life. Generally, the trunk will develop an unprecedented arc or sequence of coils, and therefore the branches are placed in such a way that evens out this effect.

Just as it is with a formal upright, the tree’s crown is mostly filled with greenery and, in spite of the informal trunk, it is usually found right over the base of the tree. This is a quality of the informal upright form, and if it is not conducted in this way, the tree will be at a slant. Jin, which is the carved remnants of dead (or undesired) branches made to appear like dead and rotting tree limbs, is additionally more appealing and efficient for the informal upright style.

Recommended Informal Upright Species:

For this style, you can take a Japanese maple, beech, trident maple, and all kinds of conifers. Some ornamental plants such as cotoneaster, crab apple, and pomegranate can also be used for this aim.

Recommended Informal Upright Techniques:

As with the case of formal uprights, the informal upright form of bonsai also requires tapering on the trunks. The main difference occurs though as with the direction of the trunk and branches in this style is positioned in an informal way, something similar to that of a tree that grows naturally exposed to all types of elements in nature at an early age.

With this, the trunks curve and bend, while the branches grow in a way that they balance this bending effect. The tip of the informal upright tree must also be located up the bottom of the plant and should be filled with foliage.

Slanting Style Bonsai – “shakan”

The outcome of substantial shade and buff setting winds throughout the beginning is trees which naturally lean in one direction. Regardless of being straight or bowed, an entire tree trunk is inclined at a fixed angle. Firmer roots will develop on the outside, past the inclination of the trunk’s angle, in order to hold up its weight.

Nearly any kind of tree can function well with this design. This design withholds a strong likeness to the natural upright. The trunk could turn out either straight or bent, but it needs to be at either a left or right angle (never towards the front), with its apex located indirectly above the bonsai’s base.

This happens to be a very plain style that can be accomplished in many different ways. In its first year, the bonsai can be prepared at an angle through wiring the trunk until it has reached the right position. On the other hand, a tree can be made to grow in a slanted direction by placing the pot itself at an angle, thus making the tree unusual.


With the formal upright, slanted styles and informal upright, the number three has an important role.

The bottom most branches are assembled in threes, and this cluster starts 1/3 of the way up the trunk. The latter three branches nearly go around the trunk entirely, with two branches extended out in front, with one being a bit higher than another. The third branch, which extends from a spot flanked by the first two, is placed at such an angle to create an illusion of the foliage being lower than the other two.

This shape exhibits a simple method to tell the back from the front while setting the tone of the whole arrangement.

Recommended Slanting Species:

The good news about the slanting form is that it works perfect for almost all species of bonsai. Those that grow successfully with the informal upright form are also appropriate with this style, but conifers are deemed as the best.

Recommended Slanting Techniques:

In terms of techniques, one can train his or her bonsai to appear slanted by incorporating the wiring method applied to the trunks. The trunk should be wired until it slants. Aside from that, the slanting form can also be achieved by simply putting the pot also slanted. This method will definitely allow your slanting bonsai to grow oddly.

Cascade Style – “kengai”

The tip of the bonsai that grows goes below the bottom of the pot it is in is the cascade style. Giving an impressive display, the trunk has natural convex shape that makes it seem as if it is fighting against gravity. The branches spread upwards as if grasping light. Like a stream finding its way down the mountains, the main part of the trunk twists and turns upwards.

You can create a cascade bonsai from various different trees. The trick is to find a tree that doesn’t have naturally a straight standing trunk. It is suggested to not attempt to make a tree with a naturally straight trunk into a cascading bonsai. This type of bonsai can be very attractive looking if done correctly. With the convex trunk, it grows below the pot as if gravity itself was pushing it down forcing it out of the bottom. The trunk of the tree too appears as if it is a stream branching off into many other smaller streams through its branches.

All you need to perform this cascade style is a very tall and slim pot which can boost the type of bonsai and work well with the type of plant you will be using.


The main part of the trunk should be tied down so it spills over the side of the pot focusing on big bend creating a U shape. Also you should keep the branches as they normally would be, and horizontal so it is nearly vertical to the trunk. A big thing to remember if you are going to attempt a cascading style bonsai is that you need to place the planet right in the middle of the pot opposed to one side like you would in a normal bonsai.

Semi-Cascade Style – “han-kengai”

Much like a cascade bonsai, a semi-cascade bonsai projects over the rim of the container; however, unlike the cascade, a semi-cascade does not drop below the base. This occurs naturally with trees that hang over water or grow on cliffs. Even if the plant grows well below the level of the rim of the pot, the angle of the trunk of a semi-cascade will be imprecise as long as the effect is strongly horizontal. The trunk is balanced by the exposed roots.


Recommended Cascade and Semi-Cascade Species:

For the Semi-Cascade, the best trees to use are junipers, cedars, and cherry trees that are flowering. This style of bonsai is often seen as the most beautiful of any bonsai types.

For the cascade, you can use a prostate juniper, star jasmine, wisteria, chrysanthemums, cherries, cedars, and willows. These plants tend to grow in this form if done right.

Recommended Cascade and Semi-Cascade Techniques:

It is important to note that for the plants or trees to grow cascading, they should be placed in a narrow and tall container. Also, the main trunk should be kept wired for it to grow downward abruptly.

Other than that, a close emphasis to the horizontal and uniform shape of the plants should be taken into consideration, and for the plants to grow successfully according to this style, it should be planted or positioned right into the midst of the container. This is applicable for both the full and semi-cascade forms.

In order to achieve any of the 5 bonsai styles above and you will need the correct tools. In a separate post we detail and list out the top 10 most popular bonsai tools.