Displaying Bonsai

The art of Bonsai is like the art of Japanese flower arranging. Bonsai look best if shown off on their own and very simply displayed in containers that blend with the colour and echo the shape of the tree. The only accessories they require are perhaps a few pebbles, rocks or cones to emphasize the natural surroundings of the tree that has been copied.

Bonsai are copies in miniature of trees that grow in the wild, usually in adverse conditions, so that they are shaped by weather, by altitude and by soil. Signs of aging are also copied to produce trees of great character that can only be seen clearly if they are shown off independently of any paraphernalia. Bonsai are often grown and shaped to follow a specific traditional style.

Displaying Bonsai

Bonsai styles

Formal upright: This style is based on the shape of giant upright trees growing in the wild in isolation and with outward signs of adverse weather conditions.

The aim is to end up with a tree that has a vertical trunk, tapering at the top, and branches that radiate from this in an upwards spiral. In this style, both the branches and the gaps between them should diminish in size towards the apex. The effect from the front is of a. triangle with a flat side towards you, the point giving depth at the back. Alternatively, the shape can be an oval. The points at which branches meet the trunk are kept free of foliage to display the line of the trunk and branches and to suggest age.

Informal upright: This style copies trees in the wild that have been influenced by conditions that force some gentle realignment for survival — mainly in the trunk, which may have several curves in it. The tree should still end up with a centre of gravity that runs through the trunk even if the base of the trunk is to one side of this. A horizontal branch emerges at the outside point of each curve and the complete tree forms a roughly triangular shape, which can often give a pleasantly asymmetrical effect.

Windswept: This is based on trees growing in difficult, windy conditions on a mountainside or by the sea, and features a trunk inclining strongly to one side. Slanting style is a more gentle example of windswept, but the trunk is still likely to incline by about 30 degrees. The lowest branch is long, following the line of the trunk, and the ‘windward’ side is bare of branches with the branches forming a rough triangle to one side of the trunk. Cascade: This is an extension of the windswept style where the tree curves down to one side, often with the apex below container base level. The trunk curves upwards and outwards, then down, and branches highlight the shape. Twin trunk: In this case the trunk is divided into two close to the base, with branches from the slimmer trunk pruned so that they do not conflict with those of the main trunk. The trunk can be further divided to give what is known as triple, five or seven trunk styles.

Showing off Bonsai

Hardy Bonsai should be grown outdoors and only brought in for display for short periods of time. All Bonsai are best positioned at eye level against a plain background where the shape and texture can be clearly seen. A second subsidiary Bonsai could be positioned to side and back to form a group effect.

Shaping Bonsai

All these shapes are formed by pruning, by holding branches or trunk in position with wire and by trimming the roots. In wiring, one end of the wire is held in place below the roots for trunk shaping, around the trunk or another branch for branch shaping, and then coiled loosely around trunk or branch and guyed down to the trunk or a wire looped around the container. Trunk or branch should take on the enforced position in a couple of months when wires should be removed.


The container is a very important part of the overall visual effect of a Bonsai and looks best when it reinforces rather than dominates the tree. Usually for a balanced effect the container depth when used with a slender tree can be 20-80 per cent tree. When used with a heavier tree it will need to be deeper — 40-60 per cent tree. The container needs good drainage holes or the constant watering required could result in rot.


Rectangular or oval-shaped ceramic containers are most often used. Round, saucer-like pots can look effective with slender trunk trees; a heavy trunk requires a squat and heavy looking pot to counterbalance it.


Unglazed containers in earthy tones and with a matt finish that echoes bark and foliage texture and colour, often look most effective with evergreens. With deciduous or flowering trees a glazed pot in a soft colour that echoes the colours of leaves or flowers can act to highlight the trees.

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