by Terry Erasmus February 26, 2016 7 Comments

Lately on social media I have been seeing a number image posts depicting how to create branches on bonsai trees. We've all seen them the illustrations before; the sketched birds eye view showing a branch and how to cut and not to cut it. Sometimes the front profile of the branch is also depicted, and it is usually also an extremely abstract idea of a tree branch. These were the sorts of sketches that were my references when I began growing bonsai. The other "bonsai by numbers" foundational rules or guidelines, call it what you like, was that your first branch is 1/3rd up the trunk. This branch can grow to the left or to the right, usually determined by the shape of the trunk as branches should originate from an outwards curve of a trunk. The branch which follows this grows to the back and the next one must grow in the opposite direction to the first. And so on.

The problem with the above is that it generally leads to a boring tree from what I have seen, as there are many of these trees around. In my opinion, they depict highly stylized trees not seen in nature and they demonstrate a very superficial understanding of bonsai.

I have almost the entire collection of the wonderful Bonsai Today published by Stone Lantern Press. In it were excellent articles written by Japanese authors trying to explain or describe many of the techniques. These magazines were filled with beautiful galleries of bonsai which were unlike anything I had seen before. I dreamt of designing bonsai trees like I saw in these photos, but it never occurred to me that using the techniques I had learnt from the artists I had consulted with till then, I never would.

It was not until my first visit to Japan that my eyes were finally opened. Let me show you what I mean.

bonsai branch structure

Image caption. An exquisite maple belonging to my teacher Mr Tanaka of Aichi-en nursery in Japan.

The above is a Chinese maple which is a rather famous tree in Japan, and I believe was started many years ago by my teachers grandfather. Notice anything different about this tree? Not sure? Please point out the left branch or the right branch or the back branch. OK, maybe it's not clear enough with all the leaves.

bonsai branch structure

Image caption. Here is the same tree (the front side this time) without leaves. I believe the photo credit belongs to Juan Andrade, fulltime apprentice at Aichi-en.

So is it easier now? Can you find the left, right and back branches? Yes there are most certainly branches which are moving in these general directions and I would say that were you to study the proportions of the tree, that you will find the main branches do happen to be placed roughly in that roughly 1/3rd of the height zone. However this tree demonstrates such an advanced understanding of designing and, as the Japanese refer to it; "making trees." So what is the secret? Let's take a closer look at some branches.

bonsai branch structure

Image caption. This is another maple belonging to Aichi-en which I did a little work on; defoliating and thinning the branches. Don't you just love that pot!!

Sorry about the busy background but I think you can get a pretty good idea of the canopy and the branches which it consists of. However in this tree we have more movement that the previous example. In which direction is this movement? To left yes? So notice how that the visual weight of the tree shifts to the left to enhance this feeling of movement. To achieve this the artist who originally designed or made this tree ensured that the canopy was more extended to the left and compacted on the right.

This basic principle was never explained to me from what I recall, in my pre-Japan education on bonsai. However I can now sum it up so simply for you:

  • The largest branch ("sashi-eda" is the Japanese term) on your tree is the most important branch of the tree as it not only determines the style (leaning trunk, windswept, cascade etc) but it also determines how the rest of the branches need to look ie. if it is generally rather straight then the rest of the branches on the tree must also be rather straight.
  • A significant branch which grows in the direction opposite to the "sashi-eda" is called the "uke-eda" or balancing branch in English. This branch provides the visual balance for the tree otherwise the "sashi-eda" would make the tree feel as though it were about to topple.
  • The front and back branches add a sense of depth. This we all know, although front branches near the base of the tree are frowned upon by those I learnt from before.

Image caption. This Chinese maple by famous artist Tomohiro Masumi shows a very prominent front branch. Breaks the rules as you know it right? As this tree is grown to be shown in winter without leaves, the front branch is needed in order to increase the size of the canvas which can be used to create an even more dense canopy.

  • The branch closest the bottom of the tree is the first branch. It does not matter in which direction the branch is growing or it's size. You will often find that the first branch is also the "sashi-eda" however.

However does it perhaps strike a true sound with you now that rather than designing your tree around first, second, third etc branches you view it from another perspective? That is to say developing a larg{est} branch to determine what style you want to create with the tree, then selecting a branch opposite to that one which gives your creation balance. Between these branches, vertically, there are normally many other branches which fill in these negative spaces otherwise you end up with topiary bonsai, which look anything but natural.

Image caption. Close up of the main branch or "sashi-eda" of the root over rock maple we were looking at earlier.

When you study the branches up close, which make up these trees which have these wonderful and full canopies we strive to make, you will notice that none of these branches resemble the illustrations you have seen in countless beginner books.

Rather than having a lazy s-bend type of shape with uninterrupted albeit tapered flow from trunk to tip with secondary branches shooting off perpendicular to the main branch; the branches of these trees ramify. At a point along the branch they cut, the buds which shoot after the cut are then developed and then cut again. This process is repeated and repeated until the outline of the branch is achieved.

If you were to grow your branches like you are instructed to by many of the illustrations on the subject your branches will suffer dieback as the single branch can simply not provide the sap flow required to keep all the little twigs going. Secondly you will find yourself running out of space when trying to creating volume as the shoots will be bumping into one another.

However don't forget that when we view bonsai we do so from the front and not from the top. The aerial view illustration is meant to help you create the foundation of the branch however many of them then neglect to show you how to create volume to the branches. If you look at the earlier photo of this tree you will notice that there are branches growing in a more upwards direction, towards the sunlight. Branches are not flat plains.

Image caption. Viewing the tree from above.

When you design trees you do so by working on branches one at a time; from the bottom of the tree to the apex. Each branch has its overall shape however very importantly they define the overall shape of the tree; the silhouette of the canopy so to speak.

If you forget the principle above you will end up with very stylized trees which have clouds of foliage and lots of negative space around them rather than a cohesive canopy comprised of many individual branches. This "fact" is no better illustrated than in the tree with which I began this article.

You will notice that I have not used any of the illustrations I have referred to in the above text, nor have I used photographs of trees which look more like topiary to me than bonsai. At the risk of not adequately bringing my point across I did not wish to pick on anyone and potentially embarrass them also. In the paraphrased words of Rob Kempinski if you want to create a bonsai which looks poodle pruned and that's what your tree looks like then you were successful, however if you wanted to create a natural looking tree then you're kidding yourself.

Disclaimer: Just when I think I know something about bonsai I am humbled once again. I am, like you, a scholar of bonsai following the rabbit hole and seeing where it leads.





Terry Erasmus
Terry Erasmus

Author


7 Responses

keith
keith

February 29, 2016

Terry – thx for another interesting article! I note comments from my colleagues at Kat River Kai.

This does not need any response

Kind regards

PS Do you have any interest in forests? If you do, perhaps you could post something regarding developing or maintaining as I am “hooked” on forests.
K

Terry
Terry

February 28, 2016

Heather you are definitely not alone. When I returned from my first trip to Japan I had to essentially start again as I too was made a disciple of the left, back and right law. As they say, talk is cheap. Problem was I was talking a lot and did not have much to show till very recently. Hopefully as the eyes of more South African bonsai artists are opened we will leave this legacy behind, to be found only in the history books.

Terry
Terry

February 28, 2016

Div, thank you for the support. To be honest I have avoided writing this article for some time now. In fact I procrastinated so badly this time that I woke up early the morning it needed to be sent out and wrote it (and I had no alternative as I had nothing else prepared) I am the first to admit that I do not study trees in nature sufficiently, they are really the best source of inspiration though. However you are correct, in nature these “bonsai by numbers guidelines” don’t exist. I completely lay the blame on the challenge that it is to translate Japanese to English. I believe when the question was posed to the Japanese bonsai masters of the past ie. how to create bonsai trees, that their answer had a very different meaning to way it was translated. In fact I was very fortunate to visit a nursery in Japan a few years ago where the owner was not only a bonsai professional but had also studied English literature. So he could speak broken English but more interesting was his replies to my many questions on the essence of bonsai. Wish I had recorded it so I could have transcribed it and share it with anyone interested.
Glad you are enjoying the knob cutter, wish more people could experience the difference and enjoyment of working with a quality tool rather than something from the local hardware store or other cheap alternative.

Terry
Terry

February 28, 2016

Thanks Earl for your comment. There is such talent in South Africa but it seems the legacy from the past from where these abstract idea originate lingers. However I know and congratulate individuals such as yourself in your position on the SABA exco that are very busily changing the bonsai scene in South Africa as we knew it.

Heather Pfister
Heather Pfister

February 26, 2016

Excellent article as usual, Terry! I am so pleased to have my ‘thoughts’ of the left, back, right branching formula dispelled. When I started bonsai in the early 90’s, this was what we were taught and pretty much expected to follow! I could never find that placement of branches on many of my trees with the result that my trees stayed in their training pots for years :)
Once again, thanks for a really excellent article!

Div de Villiers
Div de Villiers

February 26, 2016

Terry, thank you! This is a GREAT article. South African bonsai artists can learn a lot from reading this… I study trees in nature wherever I go and have still to see a left branch, right branch, back branch specimen.
PS. The knob cutter I got from you is a quality tool that will be in my toolbox until I go to the Big Tree in the sky!

Earl Jefferys
Earl Jefferys

February 26, 2016

You are so right, I think that all South african bonsai artists should take note of this..it is seriously lacking..especially when we look at exhibitions in SA.

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