Bonsai styling and shaping is the basis for maintaining and increasing the quality of a bonsai in the long term. The basic requirement for a successful shaping of bonsai trees is adequate care of the bonsai and mastery of the various design techniques.
Large bonsai (China)
It is often assumed that bonsai are specially cultivated, i.e. genetically modified, dwarfed tree species that remain small. There are two fundamental errors in this assumption. On the one hand, bonsai are not plants that have been specially grown for bonsai design and, on the other hand, bonsai trees are not necessarily small.
Of course there are varieties that are particularly suitable for bonsai design and of course most bonsai are rather small, i.e. well below 1m in size.
But - whether small or not, whether straight or inclined - that is what the bonsai designer decides. That means we decide where to go and not genetics.
And we need a long-term plan, a lot of perseverance and the corresponding know-how so that we can achieve our goal at the end of the journey. And for this we used different techniques of bonsai styling, which we present here on these pages.
Which techniques are important for bonsai styling ?
- Pruning: The most important and most frequently used technique for bonsai design is pruning the bonsai. This not only limits the growth in size, but also influences the shape of the bonsai tree and moves it in the desired direction. Depending on the type of tree, growth vigor, degree of maturity of the bonsai, etc., the tree is pruned about 2-3 times a year.
- Wiring: In order to bring a tree precisely into the desired shape, wiring of the bonsai is usually unavoidable. Special bonsai wire is wound around the shoots or the trunk to be formed and then the part of the plant is bent in the desired direction. After a while (often months or years) the shoot will hold the new position and the bonsai wire will be removed.
- Pinching: Cutting and wireing are among the basic techniques of bonsai styling. This means that both measures are used both for bonsai under construction and for trees whose basic shaping has largely been completed. Pinching bonsai is also one of the basic techniques, but with a few exceptions, it is mainly used for largely finished bonsai. The shoot tips are removed in order to obtain a finer branching of the branch pads.
- Leaf cut: A bonsai leaf cut (defoliation) is used like pinching to increase the fine branching of a bonsai. Often this also reduces the leaf size.
- Air layering: One of the more advanced techniques is the air layering of a bonsai. The main concern here is to achieve a good root approach, sometimes also to shorten a trunk that is too long or to obtain raw material for bonsai cultivation.
- Deadwood design: The advanced techniques of bonsai styling also include methods of deadwood design, i.e. that are used to design jin and shari parts. Jin is a dead branch and Shari is a debarked trunk section.
- Cultivation: If you want to "grow your own bonsai", similar techniques are used. Here, however, a much more systematic approach has to be taken, as with bonsai cultivation e.g. from tree seeds the time horizon until the desired result occurs is much longer. If you want to grow a bonsai yourself, you have to deal with the bonsai style of the tree very early on. For example, once the main movement has been defined, it can hardly be changed later.
- Choice of bonsai pot: No good bonsai without a matching bonsai pot. Therefore, when it comes to bonsai styling, you cannot avoid choosing an adequate bonsai pot. You can find numerous tips on this under: Selection of bonsai pots.
Bonsai pruning is the most important technique for styling a bonsai and maintaining its shape. A bonsai tree must be pruned regularly. Pruning a bonsai is divided into 2 types: The Structural pruning and the Maintenance bonsai pruning. Both types are important in order to bring the bonsai into a desired shape and to maintain this shape in the long term.
The bonsai is stylistically brought into a desired shape (bonsai style) by the Structural bonsai pruning. The quality of the bonsai tree is fundamentally changed and improved from an aesthetic point of view. The structural pruning is more radical than the maintenance cut and requires more knowledge and preparation.
The structural bonsai cutting is mainly carried out at the beginning of the development of a bonsai. As a result, a original plant or an existing prebonsai is completely revised and its shape is thus greatly changed.
The Maintenance bonsai pruning (maintenance cut) aims to maintain the specified style of a bonsai tree and to improve the existing shape qualitatively in many small steps. It is less drastic and must be done regularly as otherwise the quality of a bonsai tree can quickly deteriorate.
More detailed information you can find under: Bonsai pruning
The growth of the bonsai and its shape can be influenced and controlled by the wire from the very beginning. Almost all good bonsai were wired at some point, often over long periods of time. Without wiring an exact bonsai shaping is difficult to achieve.
Bonsai wiring is a continuous process that is often carried out gradually over many years. Special wire is wrapped around trunk, branches and shoots. The wired areas are then bent in the desired direction.
Over the next few months, the shape of the wired plant parts solidifies through thickening and lignification. Then you can unwire the bonsai.
The shaped parts of the bonsai then often remain in position (tree with hard wood like azalea, japanese maple). In tree species with softer wood (e. g. White pine, Spruces) the branches often bend back a little. Then the bonsai must be wired again.
More information with lots of pictures can be found under: Bonsai wiring
Pinching with the fingers
Pinching is a basic technique of bonsai styling. It can be used on many bonsai trees species and, when used correctly, leads to a finer ramnification of the crown of the bonsai trees. Pinching is mostly used for well-developed bonsai, less often for prebonsai. In the case of prebonsai, the basic structure of the bonsai tree is still being worked on. Therefore, it is usually too early for the technique of bonsai pinching.
Essentially, bonsai pinching means removing with your fingers the end bud or the tip of the shoot.
The shoot tip of trees produces growth hormones. These growth hormones inhibit the budding of the underlying buds. If the end bud is removed, the other buds can sprout because the inhibition by the plant hormones disappears.
There is a better ramnification. The bonsai tree does not grow tall. The crown becomes denser and more compact. In addition, more flower buds are created on many trees. An often desired effect.
Read more about bonsai pinching under: Bonsai pinching
Perfect roots (Amur maple)
Air-layering is a technique in horticulture that is mainly used to propagate trees. The aim of air-layering is the vegetative (asexual) propagation of trees. The new plants forms new roots on the parent plant. After roots have formed the two plants are separated.
Air-layering is used in forming a bonsai as a technique to improve the quality of the bonsai tree. Sometimes a long trunk is shortened or a new prebonsai is won. A bad root basis or a malformation of the trunk is more often corrected by air-layering.
Shorten long trunk: Sometimes bonsai or prebonsai have a good crown, but an excessively long stem (distance between the surface of the soil and the 1st main branch is too great). By air-layering the bonsai, ie. new roots forming higher, the trunk can be shortened after removing the old roots. The proportion of the bonsai can be significantly improved and at the same time there is the possibility of making a great root basis.
A new bonsai plant can also be obtained from the branch of a normal tree by air-layering. In this way, a good prebonsai can be obtained in a few months.
Bad root basis (= Nebari): The root basis does not correspond to the quality requirements (e.g. uneven, one-sided) and should be improved. If a root basis is so bad that it cannot be improved by other techniques, air-layering of the bonsai is a way to get a completely new root basis up a little further up on the trunk. This works very well with many deciduous trees (maple, elm).
Read more under: Bonsai air-layering
Spindle tree: young plant and prebonsai
The term bonsai breeding is often (in german) used - also by us - for the sake of simplicity. However, breeding a bonsai is unfortunately not possible because the cultivation and shaping of a bonsai has nothing to do with breeding in the strict genetic sense. In most cases, various tree species are used for bonsai cultivation, which do not differ genetically from the plants in the wild.
However, one must restrict the fact that certain - in the genetic sense - bred (or selected) varieties are particularly suitable for bonsai design. These "bonsai varieties" often have particularly small needles (e.g. Japanese pine varieties Zuisho and Kokonoe, an attractive leaf color (Japanese maple varieties Deshojo - carmine red - or Katsura - orange-red when shoot) or a fine branching with small leaves (e.g. Japanese maple variety Kiyohime).
Also with the term bonsai seeds you should be aware that these are normal tree seeds that are used for bonsai cultivation. Strictly speaking, there are no bonsai seeds.
Often, especially in the horticultural industry, people speak of growing bonsai (in earlier times it was even referred to as "raising a bonsai"). Since we want to cultivate our starting plants through creative techniques in a certain direction, growing bonsai fits much better. In the term bonsai cultivation we use, there is also the root of the word.
If you want to grow a bonsai, this is, in our experience, quite feasible and worthwhile. Bonsai cultivation from both tree seeds and young plants has a major disadvantage: It takes many years longer than creating a bonsai from a prebonsai (= bonsai blank) or redesigning a "finished" bonsai that has already been designed. You should plan at least 10-15 years.
Further information on growing bonsai can be found at: Bonsai cultivation
History of styling bonsai
The history of bonsai (or of plants cultivated in pots) dates back to ancient Egypt 4000 years ago. At that time, plants in pots were hold mainly for practical reasons (mobility). The Greeks, Babylonians, Persians and Hindus adopted this technique and continued it.
About 1800 years ago, the Chinese were the first to cultivate trees in pots for aesthetic reasons.
They developed a very simple style known as Pun-sai. These early designs often had sparse foliage and a fancy shape reminiscent of dragons or other animals. Around this Pun-sai many myths and legends grew up. Today they achieve high prices.
The Japanese adopted many cultural characteristics of the Chinese, including the cultivation of trees in bonsai pots.
Japanese scrolls from the Kamakura period (1192-1333) suggest that the art of bonsai cultivation arrived in Japan around the 6th-7th century as Buddhism spread.
Once introduced, it quickly developed its own style. The art of bonsai design left the monasteries and was valued by the nobility as a symbol of prestige and honor. Ideals and beliefs changed drastically over the years. Already in the 14th century, a separate, Japanese style had formed.
In the middle of the 19th century, after more than 230 years of isolation from the world, Japan opened up. Soon, the knowledge of old-looking miniature trees in clay bonsai pots came through travelers to Europe. Exhibitions at the end of the 19th century in London, Vienna and especially in Paris (World's Fair 1900) presented bonsai trees to the world for the first time.
A bonsai industry quickly developed, developing new bonsai styles and new bonsai species. Various adjustments were made to certain countries and cultures.
Today a bonsai for the Japanese is a fusion of ancient beliefs with Far Eastern philosophy, the harmony between man, spirit and nature. The New year in Japan is only complete when a blossoming apricot bonsai or plum stands in the Tokonoma - a special niche of the Japanese house.
Bonsai plants are no longer a privilege of the upper classes. Employees and workers also enjoy them.