Article 88 – ‘Design: a discussion’ Part 7

Hi welcome to Taiga Bonzai, in this article we look at some more designs that can either be simplified or complicated due to the artists design, interpretation and perception.

Introduction – an example of a simplistic design giving the appearance of multiple trees is Netsunagari (netsuranari) – often referred to as Raft, sinuous – This style is like the straight-line raft, but the underlying trunk has been subjected to several bends, hence the trees growing up from it do not appear in a straight line.

Design method – a single tree is chosen for this design where the required branches have been selected, the remainder are removed and the wounds sealed either with an appropriate compound or petroleum jelly (vaseline) to prevent infection. Further pruning is required on the remaining branches to thin them out bearing in mind the intended design. (it is a good idea to have sketched this out prior to commencement)

The tree is subjected to an assortment of several bends with the individual branches situated on the outside of each bend, the more severe the bends are; the overall design will give impression of a group of trees. However, be careful when bending as some trees are relatively brittle and are easily snapped, test the tree’s flexibility and carefully manipulate it to soften the rigidness. 3 year old saplings are ideal for sinuous raft design older trees are more difficult due to their girth and heartwood hardness; further bending can be done at a later date.

According to the purists groups of trees in whatever design are always in odd numbers in clumps of 3, 5, 7 and so on, this is to give the impression of a natural look. Some designers bury the trunk below the soil surface to hide the fact that this is a single tree, whilst others have the trunk slightly raised. Sinuous raft is relatively easy to achieve, but it takes planning and thought, the tree is then planted in a large container which allows for root run and development; the top layer of roots above the soil surface can be removed.

Here are two simple examples 1. depicts a group of 7 larch trees notice the height difference in relation to each other tree 4 is the dominant one taking centre stage, 2. shows their position in the container. These two simple sketches are an example of what can be achieved with a sinuous raft design using a single tree. We recommend that you visit other artists including the world wide web; just type the following “Bonsai sinuous raft design” there you will find many examples including visible trunks and those buried.

The more we explore various designs the more complicated they become, we have probably mentioned our first candidate before, but as it is part of the complete known líst in the bonsai catalogue we will include it.

Sokan – Twin or two trunks – two trunks rise from a single set of roots. The base of the trunks generally touch and may be joined to each other up to a short distance above the soil. One trunk is taller and thicker than the other and both are clearly visible from the bonsai’s front. Branches from the two trunks extend left, right and backwards, but not directly toward each other. The images below show a Picea when first purchased and after when the design was near completion.

Three trunk – three trunks rise from separate sets of roots. Trunk sizes are varied, with one dominant trunk being the thickest and generally the tallest. The three trunks are placed so that a straight line cannot intersect all three to minimize symmetry and make the design look as natural as possible.

Gokan – Five trunk – modifying the stylistic constraints of the ‘three-trunk’ style, the five-trunk style allows a second dominant tree to be placed in the design. This tree is subordinate to the largest in size. Larger-numbered group styles (seven- trunk, nine-trunk, forest, etc) also allow a second or third tree to dominate additional groups of trees in the larger design.

Nanakan – Seven trunk – as with five trunk.

Kyukan – Nine trunk – as with five trunk.

Kabudachi (kabubuki) – Clump – in the clump style, three or more (should be an odd number) trunks grow from a single point. The natural equivalent might be a group of trees that have sprouted from a single cone, or a collection of mature suckers springing from the base of a single tree.

Korabuki – Turtle – this style is similar to the clump style, but the trunks do not rise from a fairly flat surface root system. Instead, the ground-level roots form a domed or turtle-back shape where the multiple trunks rise from it.

Ikadabuki – Raft-style (straight line) – these styles mimic a natural phenomenon that occurs when a tree topples onto its side for example, from soil eroding beneath the tree. Branches along the top side of the trunk continue to grow as a group of new trunks. Sometimes, roots will develop from buried portions of the trunk. Raft-style bonsai can have sinuous or straight-line trunks, all giving the illusion that they are a group of separate trees, while actually being the branches of a tree planted on its side. The straight-line style has all the trees in a single line.


Soju – Two tree – in all multiple-trunk styles, conventional bonsai specimens use trees of the same species. As with the twin-trunk style, the two-tree style has a dominant larger tree and a smaller one. The two trees may be set very close to one another as in the twin-trunk style; they may also be set apart as they do not share a single root.

Sambon yose – Three tree – the three-tree design up to nine-tree styles are considered ‘group settings’ rather than forests. The smaller number of trees means that some stylistic goals, such as having no more than two trees in line with each other, may be applied to these bonsai. Trees in groups settings vary in trunk width and height, but generally resemble each other in proportions, density of foliage and other visual characteristics. In the three-tree style, a single tree will be the dominant one. The other two will be smaller and usually differ in size from each other.

Gohon yose – Five tree – as for ‘three-tree’, but there may be two dominant trees. One will be larger than the other and the remaining three will be noticeably smaller.

Nanahon yose – Seven tree – as with five tree.

Kyuhon yose – Nine tree – as with five tree.

Yose ue – Forest – this style describes a planting of many trees, typically an odd number unless too many to count easily in a bonsai pot. The pot has very low sides to emphasize the height of the trees, the pot may be replaced by a flat slab of rock. The trees are usually the same species, with a variety of heights employed to add visual interest and to reflect the age differences encountered in mature forests. (For mixed-species plantings, see the Japanese art of saikei) The goal is to portray a view into a forest and perspective effects, such as placing the smallest trees toward the rear are important in developing a specimen in this style.

Bunjingi – Literati – this style has a generally bare trunk line, with branches reduced to a minimum and typically placed near the apex of a long, often contorted trunk.

Hokidachi – Broom – this style is employed for trees with extensive fine branching, often with species like elms. The trunk is straight and upright and its branches fan out in all directions about 1⁄3 of the way up the entire height of the tree. The branches and leaves form a ball-shaped crown, which can also be very beautiful during the winter months.

Takozukuri – Octopus – an uncommon style, these bonsai have a relatively short, thick trunk topped by several long branches that are contorted into curved shapes, fancifully resembling octopus tentacles.

Trunk and root placement – although the majority of bonsai are planted directly into soil, other styles exist for example, trees planted on rock. A mountain scene – Saikei – uses rock formations and planted with ‘live’ specimens, which is akin to the ancient art of Bonkei. However, according to the founder of this art form Toshio Kawamoto these are living landscapes and not bonsai in the true sense of the word. Nevertheless, rocks are used in bonsai styling for example, ‘root over rock’ – Sekijoju where the root system encompasses the rock. And Ishizuki – ‘root clinging to a rock’, where the root system is less dominant as shown below.

Deciduous root over rock and conifer root slinging to a rock

Slow growing conifers can and do suit these two designs, but they take years to reach their maturity and potential. The world’s slowest growing conifer the white cedar tree found on a lake shoreline in Canada has been officially recorded as growing to a height of 4 inches in 155 years, hence it could not in reality be used. Deciduous varieties grow quicker than conifers and are easier to adapt to the conditions that prevail.

Are these two styles complicated to achieve? tree stylists use various methods to accomplish the desired results, in the next article on ‘Design: a discussion’ the last in this series we show you a step by step method that we use for this design. Until next time, BW, Nik.

Article 58 – ‘Wiring a Ficus’

Hi, welcome to Taiga Bonzai, in this post we look at an alternative way to wiring a Ficus retusa.

Introduction – This small Ficus ginseng (Ficus retusa) in the Komono class (15cm to 26cm) native to Asia has been pruned many times over the years and the cuttings were preserved by placing them in a glass jar filled with tap water. After a few weeks, the cuttings developed root systems and were planted out in plastic pots and when stable (good evidence of growth) were given to students to practise their bonsai styling skills.

Ficus ginseng

Question – We get questions on styling to which we respond, but we are of a conviction that ‘one learns by doing’ nevertheless, here is a question we received from one of our followers on this very subject. “I wired my Ficus into its intended shape, but when I went to check it weeks later the wires had caused deep grooves in the bark, my question is will these grooves pop back out?

Answer – In short the answer is no, because attention to wiring detail has not been paid, hence the plant is disfigured with bark damage and disruption to the phloem and cambium rendering the plant useless as a potential bonsai; Ficus like many other species of the genus have soft bark and phloem and cambium are easily damaged.

Course of action – Much depends on where these indentations are located be they on the trunk or branch and how long they extend, the unaffected areas can be used for new cuttings, hence your Ficus becomes a donor plant. We realise that this is a set back and not what you want to hear, but in reality there is no option you cannot undo the damage that has been done. However, do not discard the rest of the tree, remove the damaged section/s and let the plant recover; there is a possibility that it may produce new shoots as this species is quite resilient.

A different approach to wiring a ficus – Although native to Asia the genus Ficus is found all over the globe usually as house plants or decorative attractions in shopping malls for example Ficus benjamina and many are used in bonsai. However, they do not take kindly to wiring, because (a) of the soft bark easily damaged (b) they have no dormancy period unlike deciduous species from Europe and North America and (c) they are not hardy. Therefore, one needs to adopt a different approach and that is by using guy wires apposed to actually attaching the wire to the tree. The image below depicts a Pine Pinus sylvestris that has been wired using the guy wire method.

By looking at the image you can see that wire 1. is the anchor holding the tree in it’s container it also counter balances the force as wire 2. is pulling the upper mid section of the trunk down, the same process is repeated for wires 3. and 4. This balance of action and reaction stabilises the tree when a branch or trunk is severely bent, because the inside of the bend is now in compression and the outer radius is now in tension; because for every action there is a reaction. You will also notice there are black rings where wires 1. 2. 3. and 4 are attached, this material is thick felt which, prevents the wires from damaging the bark, phloem and cambium.

Of course this operation was conducted on a sturdy pine that can take this kind of treatment, whereas a ficus cannot nonetheless, it can be done although the amount of tension has to be less severe and the shaping or bending process has to be done gradually. One can shape a ficus quite easily using the guy wire method as it will conform to its given shape in a short space of time depending on the thickness of the trunk or branch; unlike a conifer which takes years.

After a short time period (2 to 3 weeks) loosen the wire to ascertain if the branch is holding it’s new shape, if the operation is a success you can proceed with your next plan of action, if not re-attach the wire and wait a little longer. In addition, ensure you use felt, leather, rubber or some other cushioning material to prevent the wire from damaging the plant. However, if you wish to wire the trunk or branch in the conventional way you can, but use a thicker wire and loosely wire the proposed section into shape, but check it on a weekly basis otherwise you will recreate the same problem.

Another point to consider is the type of style one is aiming for, the following are classic styles: Formal upright (Chokkan), Informal upright (Moyogi), Twin trunk (Sokan) and Slanted (Shakan) are possibilities for this species, but Literati (Bunjin-gi), Semi cascade (Han-kengai), Cascade (Kengai) and Broom (Hokidachi) should be avoided as ficus is not in reality adaptable to these styles; alternatively you can make your own design there is nothing in the rule book which states you cannot as we have done with our specimen depicted above. Until next time, BW, Nik.