We've all seen 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 can lead to a rather "boring" tree from what I have seen, at the very least a very predictable one. In my humble opinion, they depict highly stylized trees not seen in nature and they demonstrate a somewhat superficial understanding of bonsai.

I have almost the entire collection of the wonderful Bonsai Today magazines 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 unlike anything I had seen before. I dream't of creating trees of the caliber I saw in these photos, but it never occurred to me that using the techniques I had learnt from the so-called "masters" and "experts" with whom I spent my early bonsai years, I never would. 

Want to learn more about bonsai? Find a local teacher with trees you admire and they will teach you how to create trees with a similar appearance.

Where does the rabbit hole lead?

It was not until my first visit to Japan in 2012 that my eyes were finally opened. Let me show you what I mean.

bonsai branch structure

Image caption. An exquisite maple belonging to 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, another 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. However this tree demonstrates such a far more sophisticated understanding of design 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 the 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 slightly compacted on the right.

The Basics

This basic principle was never explained to me 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.
  • 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. However if a tree is to be viewed in winter when bare, then a low frontal branch adds much to the character and fullness of the tree.

Image caption. This Chinese maple by famous shohin artist Tomohiro Masumi shows a very prominent front branch. Breaks the rules as you know it probably 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.

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 or poodle pruned bonsai, which look anything but natural. Of course if this stylized appearance is what you want then continue as you were.

Herringbone anyone?

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 in a more natural way. When developing the branch at a point it is 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 according to the advice some would give you, or follow many of the commonplace illustrations on the subject, your branches will mostly likely suffer annual 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 in your canopy as the shoots of the individual branches will be bumping into one another.

Also, don't forget that when we view bonsai we do so from the front and not from the top. The aerial view illustrations are 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 when viewed from the front. 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.

Image caption. Viewing the tree from above. Notice that branches grow in all directions, outward, from the core which is the trunk.

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 I have not used any of the illustrations I referred to in a somewhat derogatory tone in the above text, neither have I used photographs of trees which in my opinion illustrate a superficial understanding of styling. At the risk of not adequately bringing my point across I did not wish to pick on anyone or offend any particular person. If you do take exception to anything I have written above please know that it was not written with you specifically in mind. 

Just when I think I know something about bonsai I come to realize just how much more I have to learn. I am, like you, a student of bonsai following the rabbit hole and seeing where it leads.

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