Going Rafting on Sinuous Roots

robertraftThis amazingly rugged sinuous root raft style planting is by our friend, Robert Steven. I don't know the variety, but my guess is that Robert, who seemingly keeps track of the entire bonsai universe, will let us know.

Rounding out our discussion of forest bonsai, it’s time to take a look at raft style bonsai. I don’t need to say much (Peter Adams has it covered below) except that all the rafts shown here are sinuous root style (netsunagari in Japanese) as opposed to rafts with straight line trunks (stay posted).

The section just below by Peter Adams originally appeared on Bark way back in 2010.


This very well rendered drawing by Peter Adams is from his book 'Bonsai with Japanese Maples.' It appears in a section called 'Creating Raft Trees' and on the back cover of the book. Whether or not this drawing comes from a tree in Peter's collection or is just from his imagination, we can't say. But one thing we do know; a quality ceramic pot that big (I imagine it to be at least 30 inches) will most likely set you back several hundred dollars.

Rafting in Peter’s own words
“The raft method… is formed by laying a tree on its side and encouraging it to root along the recumbent trunk. The branches on the underside of the old trunk are removed to facilitate it lying comfortably in the new posture. Other branches are left and are developed into trees.”

Or better still, with his drawings
I think the drawings are more or less self explanatory, depending on your experience and native intelligence (no insult intended).

We’re just here to whet your appetite
If you’d like more detail, try the book. Or lacking that, there’s always research.


maple3You can use a box while roots are developed along the trunk, and if you can't afford a suitable pot, you can always leave it there.
maple1&2The early steps: top to bottom. Notice how the upper limbs are wired to form interesting trunk shapes and how the lower limbs are removed before potting.



Where it all started. Sinuous root Japanese white pine after restyling by Isaburo Nishiyama (photo courtesy of Bonsai Focus). According to an article that appears in Bonsai Today issue 44, this the first netsuranari (sinuous root style) bonsai. It came to light in 1937 at a famous Japanese auction where it was distinguished from the older clump style bonsai. Most original sinuous root bonsai are Japanese white pines. That's a bamboo stick supporting the guy wires.


hawthornraftThis one is a Hawthorn. You don’t see too many Hawthorn rafts (I know of no others) and I don't think I've ever seen one that overflows the pot on both ends. Speaking of, that perfect pot was made by the owner of the tree, John Pitt, a well-known and highly accomplished bonsai potter.


valavanis_cotoneaster_horizontalisHere's a sinuous root bonsai where the original trunk is completely buried (or almost completely, I can't tell for sure). It's a Rockspray Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster horizontalis) in splendid fall color, by Bill Valavanis of International Bonsai. BTW: Bill, like Robert, is another old friend who seemingly keeps track of the entire bonsai universe.


bakerraftThe Japanese maple raft belongs to Stephen Dodds from Belfast Northern Ireland. It was originally purchased from Willowbog Bonsai. I like the way it arches up out out of the ground (twice), just like Peter's drawing (above). For more on this tree you can visit Bonsai Baker (Stephen's blog) and two Bark posts from 2012 (here and here).



Close up



The drawings and the quoted text above are from this book. As far as I know, it's the only book on Japanese maple bonsai in the English language. And yes, I know that's a Trident maple (Acer beurgerianum) on the cover, not a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum). Nor is it native to Japan (China and Taiwan according to Wikipedia). Still, misleading cover and all, it's available at Stone Lantern.


B1MISSIONRobert's Mission of Transformation. The bonsai genius behind the tree at the top is the same bonsai genius that's behind this book. And even though it goes without saying, I'll say it anyway: available at Stone Lantern.

Multiple Trunks Sharing a Single Root Stystem – Clump Style Bonsai Forests

forest1 We found this extraordinary clump style deciduous bonsai on Bonsai Nakayoshi. They don't give a variety. You can imagine that all the smaller trunks started as suckers on the roots of the main tree (you could also imagine that they started from seeds dropped by the main tree; in which case this would not qualify as a clump style bonsai).

We’ve been discussing forest bonsai for a while now without mentioning clump style (Japanese: Kabudachi or Kabubuki) . Rather than boring you with my take on clumps, here’s something that I lifted from ofBONSAI Magazine:

“Clump style bonsai should have three or more (an odd number*) trunks grown 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 (in both cases they all share the same roots). All branches should grow outwards towards the light and create an overall triangular shape and composite crown….” There’s more here.

* This definitive statement about odd number trunks is common with Japanese (and other) bonsai artists. Here’s more on this.

clump-1 This illustration is borrowed from the Kabudachi, Kabubuki article in ofBONSAI Magazine.



This Japanese white pine is from the 2011 Taikan-ten bonsai exhibition in Japan. It’s hard to tell from this angle if all the trunks are sharing a single root-system. It could be a twin-trunk tree and a triple-trunk clump combined. I borrowed the photo from Bonsai Empire.



This very sweet clump style Willow leaf ficus is by Ernie Hernandez. Aside from the how well the trunks and crown all go together, there's that perfect pot and those well-placed little spots of moss. The photo is from an old Art of Bonsai Project post.



All the exposed roots have grown together to form one nebari on this old Trident maple clump. The photo is from the 2010 Expobonsai Quebec.



We'd be remiss if we didn't show a Shohin clump. This little pine with its shaggy too-long needles, aged lichen covered trunks and funky almost too-small pot is near perfect in its imperfect naturalness. From Shohin Bonsai World, Nishinomiya branch. For a detailed look at pine bonsai, you might want to take a look at our Masters’ Series Pine book.


clump Last but not least. Michael Hagedorn’s now famous and freshly touched up Mountain Hemlock clump style bonsai (I can't say for sure that all the trunks share the the same roots, but my best guess is they do - you'll have to ask Michael to find out for sure). The photo is from Micheal’s Crataegus Bonsai.
 Here's what Michael wrote about it: “And this is how the Mountain Hemlock looks today, in January, 2015, after minor wiring touchup. More and more I’m inspired by what I see in the local mountains, which do not have as severe an environment as the Rockies, but tend to feature moister, calmer forests. In the nearby Cascades and Coast ranges I’ve been very taken with the relationships of trunks, just visually, and also the communities of trees ecologically, and have sought out trees for bonsai that might communicate this. I tried to present this hemlock as simply as possible—without a pot or visible slab—to highlight those features.”


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Rolling Along with Bonsai Rock Forests

juniper-bonsai-rock-omiyaThree robust Shimpaku junipers on a rock. From the Omiya Bonsai Museum via Empire Bonsai.

We’re on a bonsai forest binge these days, so let’s keep going. Though it’s questionable if you’d call these rock plantings forests, they do share the multiple tree and the landscape features with more conventional bonsai forests.



That's Ryan Neil's hand posing for a professional photo with a one of the largest root-on-rock plantings you'll ever see. Here's his caption: "In the studio today with @hornbecker shooting for the Artisans Cup promotional material." He doesn't say what the tree's are. If you'd like to see the uncropped original with more Ryan, it's here.



Great planting, great rock, great pot. Empire Bonsai's caption says "Buxifolio Bonsai forest, planted on a rock, by Luisa Alfaro." The Buxifolio part is a bit of a mystery. Buxifolia (with an a) is a species name, but without the genus, it could be any number of things. The leaves look tiny, so we'll try Neea buxifolia.


Juniper penjing

Juniper penjing

I borrowed this photo from a Bonsai Tonight post on Penjing. As usual, I'm impressed with the choice of material and the quality of photos on Bonsai Tonight and this one is no exception. For more detail, there are several very good closeups just a click away.


Digging Deeper into Our Forest Bonsai Excavation


Does five trunks constitute a forest?  Maybe we should call it a glade. A mossy glade at the edge of meadow somewhere. Whatever we call it, it has to be one of the most impressive multiple trunk bonsai anywhere. It doesn't hurt that the individual trees can stand on their own, especially the twin trunk tree on the right (the focal point). With or without the second trunk. The magnificent pot looks like an escarpment in the Rockies. Robert Steven took the photo at the 2012 BCI convention in Guangzhou, China.

We’ve been digging into forest type bonsai lately, so let’s just keep going (excavating).


The source for the photo doesn't say anything about it except that it's a Chinese elm (Ulmus parviflora aka parvifolia) forest. I'm not sure what Robert would say about the focal point (several trees are competing for my eye, though the gnarly one at the crest of the left hillock does make a strong statement). No matter, the overall effect is one of unity, depth and naturalness; reminiscent of Live oaks in the California Coast Range, though you'd be hard pressed to find a spot that green anywhere out there now.



Whoa! The sheer size and inventiveness of this mammoth planting is impressive to say the least, though I'm not sure how the two distinctly different parts belong together. In fact, the trees above and behind that appears so close to the viewer, betray the distant feel of the smaller trees in the front. Still, based on sheer magnitude and daring, this is a planting I'll always remember. The trees are Hedge maples (Acer campestre). I've seen this photo several places. This time it was here.


B1KATOcovertreesRecognize this? You probably do if you've been around for a while. If not, this is what a planting by a bonsai master might look like.



Here it is on the cover of one of the four or five best bonsai books in the English language (or any language). Available (of course) & on special at Stone Lantern.

Forests Again – Focal Point, Balance, Scale, Age & That Elusive Quality…

pall11I stumbled across the European hornbeam (Carpinus betulas) by Walter Pall on his Bonsai Adventures blog. The shot looks like spring with some trees lagging behind others.

Continuing with our forest theme, we’ll go back in time once again to a post that originally appeared about 17 months ago (we’ve  added a photo and a little more text). I think it’s one of our best on forests, and worth another look.

Without the dominant tree this forest planting by Walter Pall would be a whole lot less interesting. With the dominant tree the planting has a focal point, balance, scale, a feeling of age and that more elusive quality we call interest, or beauty.

Focal point. Everything organizes around the dominant tree. Your eye goes there first and from that point the rest of the planting falls into place.

Balance. If you look at the silhouette of the whole planting you’ll immediately see and feel how everything flows from the dominant tree, creating an overall sense of balance and harmony. This has a lot to do with the natural strength and dynamism of scalene triangles and something called The Golden Mean or Golden Ratio (aka Magic Thirds).

Scale. Notice how the large tree is in the front. Not only does this show off its size and power, it also highlights a sense of depth when contrasted with the medium sized trees in the center axis (left to right) of the planting and the smaller trees in the back. Rather than seeing these trees as smaller as they go back, we tend to see them as further away.

Age. When it comes to age, there are two types of natural forests: ones where all the trees are more or less the same age and size (for example a stand of trees that grew up after a forest fire) and the more interesting and common old forests with trees that show a mix of ages and sizes.

This planting is a good example of the latter, with the main tree emphasizing and even exaggerating the contrast. To carry this a little farther, you might even imagine that at one time the dominant tree stood alone and gradually seeded the others.

Walter Pall often shows several photos of the the same bonsai with different backdrops and at different times. I think this is a good idea, especially given that no single photo will ever completely capture the power and dynamism of a good bonsai. Not to say that several photos will do that either, but they might help.


pall21Same forest. Same time. Different backdrop. Walter usually shoots his trees with two or three different backdops.



The plantings are a little small in this composition, but you can still get a pretty good idea of how different backdrops effect our perception of the planting.



Same planting, fall foliage. You can see how the individual trees turn and drop on different schedules.


pall4One of the rewards of winter hardy bonsai.



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Forest Bonsai – A Deeper Understanding

Forest-1Robert Steven's simulation of a forest planting that was submitted by Paulo Netto (photo immediately below). Here's some of what Robert has to say about this simulation: "The irregular placement of the trees creates a better perspective and the impact of the focal point is more obvious. Sufficient empty space makes the scenery much more interesting and natural."

Yesterday’s post, ‘Evening the Bonsai Odds,’ featured forest plantings with some excellent commentary by Robert Steven. So it seems like a good idea to dig out an old forest planting critique by Robert. It originally appeared in February 2014.

A good place to start
Forest planting are fun and easy. Easy in the sense that anyone can gather a group of small trees and place them in a pot. Often, even complete novices will find the results pleasing, especially if they have very little idea of all that goes into making a truly natural looking and beautiful forest planting.

A deeper understanding
Soon enough though, if our novices stick with bonsai, they’ll begin to realize just how clumsy and unnatural their early attempts are (in most cases, at least). This is where education and the potential for a deeper understanding begins.

Paulo Netto submitted this photo for Robert to critique.

Robert’s Critique

The original as submitted
The materials used in the creation of this planting are ideal for creating a long distant forest view, considering their sizes, structural features and the number available.

The original design seems to be alright, though somewhat boring. This lack of interest is due to several conceptual issues.

In forest style bonsai, focal point is one of the main components of composition. In a long distance view where most of the trees are a similar size, the focal point is not only created by the tallest tree, but can also be emphasized by placing several trees close together to form a dominant group.

In this design, there is one tallest tree in the middle, but it is not dominant enough to suggest a strong focal point.

The overly symmetrical composition where most of the trees are placed more or less the same distance apart, lacks a sense depth which also contributes to the design’s somewhat boring appearance. The tray is also too small which results in a lack of empty space and resulting panoramic effect.

Last but not least, the most disturbing issue is the Chinese gate ornament placed among the trees. In addition to not working well with the theme of the planting, the scale is not correct. It simply does not correlate with or enhance the plantings overall perspective. Nor is its scale correct for the individual trees.

First simulation
The photo at the top of the page is an example of similar materials designed in an asymmetrical composition. The irregular placement of the trees creates a better perspective and the impact of the focal point is more obvious. Sufficient empty space makes the scenery much more interesting and natural.

Two more simulations
In the following simulations, I also experimented with different positions for the Chinese gate ornament.

In this simulation, I put the gate in the very back of the pot. The way that it is placed suggests that it’s quite a ways off in the back. This plays a role in drawing out the background into the distance, which in addition to creating a panoramic effect, tends to make the trees seem taller.

But when I put the same ornament in front or among the trees like Paulo’s original design, then it creates a totally different effect. Now it looks more like a small toy among the trees than a large Chinese gate. It does not have the scaling effect of making the trees look taller, unless you imagine a group of super tall trees with giant leaves, which is not a very convincing scene.

You can view this picture in 3D image by using red-cyan 3D glasses

General comments
There is more than one way to design any bonsai and my critiques and recommended solutions might not always fit your taste and personal preferences, but I always try to give my opinion based on artistic and horticultural principles.

To understand my concepts better, please read my books Vision of My Soul (our of print) and Mission of Transformation which are available at Stone Lantern.

My bonsai blog address : http://robert-steven.ofbonsai.org


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Evening the Bonsai Odds

trident7How many trunk does this spectacular Trident maple (Acer buergerianum) grove have? It's from an award winning display at the 2013 Taikan Bonsai Exhibition. The artist is Kenji Oshima. The photo is from Bill Valavanis Bonsai blog.

The odd rule. Almost anyone who plays with bonsai for a while will incorporate the odd number of trees rule into their storehouse of bonsai wisdom. It goes something like this: In any group planting (with more than two trunks), you should use an odd number of trees. This applies at least up to eleven trunks. After eleven, it doesn’t matter because who can count that high (something like that).

Once you realize that this, or any other bonsai rule, is simply a guideline that may or may not be useful depending upon the situation, than you are free to experiment. I usually avoid 4s and 6s because that’s the way I learned (mostly from paying attention to Japanese bonsai artists, many of whom make strong arguments for asymmetrical compositions and feel that odd numbers are important in achieving this), but I don’t feel bound to odd numbers.

Enough from me, let’s hear from Robert Steven, a serious bonsai scholar and famous bonsai artist. From his Bonsai Rules Syndrome 2 – Odd Number in Grouping Bonsai: “In any visual art, we are always suggested to make an asymmetrical composition because this is considered as the best to give a dynamic flow and less boring…” Continued below the next photo…


museoOdd or even, who cares? This dramatic mixed forest is from the Museo del Bonsai Marabella.

Robert Steven cont: “Then someone put this principle into bonsai with simple analogy of odd number, assuming odd number will automatically create asymmetrical composition because there will be more trees on one side and less on the other side. Then people are using this as the rule and spread the teaching for grouping bonsai and consider even number grouping bonsai is wrong.
The important point is the conceptual skill to form asymmetrical balance and not the number. Odd number can form boring symmetrical composition and even number can easily create dynamic asymmetrical composition as well.
The most important is to master the 3 aspect in designing grouping bonsai: composition, dimension and perspective; and there are simple tips to make good composition, dimension and perspective” For the rest visit Robert’s
Bonsai Rules Syndrome 2 – Odd Number in Grouping Bonsai.



This and the photo just below are two of the examples Robert uses in his article Bonsai Rules Syndrome 2 – Odd Number in Grouping Bonsai.



I've seen this planting in more than one place (perhaps on Bark even). Like the photo above, no artist, species or location is given.


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Robert Steven’s Mission of Transformation
A brilliant ground breaking book by one of the
world’s most innovative and daring bonsai artists

Stumbling Upon Some Strange & Wonderful Bonsai After Six Plus Years of Blissful Ignorance

Richard R. Gomez (forest) AA, (Kalyos (streblus asper)I've never seen a bonsai quite like this. It would be unusual even without that long joining root and those stubby trees in the back. With these almost alien features (and others), it stands alone as an absolute one-of-a-kind bonsai. It is also the only photo in this group (from bonsai4me) to give the artist's name (Richard R Gomez) and the type tree (Strebulus asper).

This is a first. A post on bonsai in the Philippines. After over six years of blissful ignorance, I discovered these wonderful (and in some cases, strange) bonsai by accident this morning. I won’t bore with the details except to say I found them on a bonsai4me gallery from 2013.

In addition to the photos, the following text is lifted from bonsai4me:
“The KPSB 2013 ‘Bonsai and Suiseki Exhibit and Competition’ was held March 2013 at SM City – Masinag in Antipolo City, Philippines. My express thanks go to Nolan Sison of the KPSB for allowing me to use these images. KPSB is the Association of Filipinos in the Art of Bonsa. Their parent club is the PBSI – Philippine Bonsai Society, Inc.”


Philippine bonsai show (38)The shape and deadwood are a lot like what you see on a lot of contemporary temperate zone bonsai. But I'm pretty sure it's a tropical tree (the southern tip of the Philippines is just a little north of the equator). The same goes for the other trees shown here.


Philippine bonsai show (30)

Here's another one that reminds me of a temperate zone tree. If it weren't for the leaves, you might think it's a particularly wild Rocky mountain juniper.


Philippine bonsai show (12)Strange and wonderful both apply here. And there's a story embedded in the trunk's swirls and holes.


Philippine bonsai show (9)

Aha. A tree I think I can identify. It's got to be a Ficus.


Philippine bonsai show (5)

Strange, wonderful and unique. This rugged two headed mountain monster is most definitely a one-of-a-kind bonsai.

bonsai show HD (6)

A simple tree growing out of an old half-decayed (and carved) stump.


bonsai show HD (4)

This rugged little tree with its earthy free-form pot, is not too strange, but certainly unique.

Philippine bonsai show (35)

Okay, you like strange bonsai? How about funny and maybe just a little scary bonsai? We'll let you project your own monsters.


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If you order 10 rolls you pay only 12.97 each (below wholesale and way below our regular price of 19.50). Even if you order 3 rolls, your price is only 15.60. That’s still very very good.

John Naka, Dave De Groot & the Principles of Bonsai Design

Oki-HackberryThis has got to be one of the most magnificent Chinese hackberry (Celtis sinensis) bonsai anywhere. Though the distinctive split trunk needs no comment, you might also notice the highly developed ramification (fine branching). The tree was donated to the Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection (now the Pacific Bonsai Museum) by Ben Oki.

There are a couple good reasons for resurrecting (with a whole lot of enhancing and editing) this post from 2013 . First, just looking at these magnificent trees might inspire you to visit the Pacific Bonsai Museum, and second, it provides a good excuse to talk about Dave De Groot’s exceptional new book, Principles of Bonsai Design. BTW, it was Dave (the Museum curator at the time) who originally sent us the four bonsai photos you see here, along with his observations.



Principles of Bonsai Design. Here's a spread out of Dave's chapter on branch structure.
"This book is an absolute must for any serious bonsai grower. I heartily recommend it." Jerry Meislik, author of Ficus, the Exotic Bonsai.


Lee-juniper-smallThis Formosan juniper (Juniperus formosana) by Mr. Kuo An Lee is from Taiwan. Amy Liang Chang donated it to the Pacific Bonsai Museum. 
Dave DeGroot wrote: "This Chinese juniper was nursery grown and trained in Taipei, Taiwan. The basic shape was created by bending the juvenile tree around a bamboo stake. Field growing enlarged the trunk, which was then topped to obtain the correct height. The illusion of great age was supported by stripping the bark from certain branches and parts of the trunk. Carved grooves and channels in the stripped trunk suggest a long period of weathering and decay, further enhancing the illusion of age and powerful natural forces.
 The artist has created a feeling of gracefulness with the gently curving, slanted trunk, while the dropped branch on the right adds tension and interest by making the tree just slightly unbalanced."
B1PRINpage You might notice this page from Dave's Principles of Bonsai Design includes the trunk of the tree just above.


Liang-Black-Pine-smallAmy Liang Chang (you might know her as just Amy Liang) of Taiwan is the artist and donor of this gnarly old (over 400 years!) Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergii).
Dave wrote this about this magnificent old tree: "The black pine is a coastal tree of southern Japan, strong, vigorous, long lived and possessed of many attractive qualities. For all the above reasons, it is known as “The King of Bonsai."
This tree was quite tall when it was collected. In order to create a bonsai of pleasing proportions, the entire upper trunk was cut off, leaving only the lower trunk and the first four branches. Taipei bonsai artist Amy Liang Chang purchased the tree from a Japanese nurseryman in 1971 and styled into in its present form. The tree was totally cleansed of soil to permit its importation to the U.S. in 1989. Although badly stressed by that experience, it lived up to its reputation as a strong, vigorous tree and recovered fully."


One more page from Principles of Bonsai Design. Just to whet your appetite.


Gray-Maple-smallThe artist and donor was of this brilliant Japanese maple was  George Gray of Dallas, Texas. It's date of origin is 1963 and it has been a bonsai since 1968.
Here's what Dave DeGroot wrote about this colorful tree: "Certainly, the Japanese maple is one of the most beautiful trees in any landscape, and one of the most beautiful for bonsai as well. Artist George Gray developed this maple from a cutting over a period of more than 30 years. Such a long time in a shallow pot has given the tree excellent surface roots and delicate, well-proportioned branches, so that it projects a sense of both strength and softness. A low, upswept branch on the right side of the tree adds interest by suggesting a secondary trunk.
The shape of the Tokoname-ware container is oval to harmonize with the softly rounded shape of the crown of the tree. The beautiful blue-green color of the container is a perfect foil for orange and red autumn foliage."



Principles of Bonsai Design. The most thorough and useful Bonsai Design book since John Naka's famous Bonsai Techniques 1 & 2, both of which no doubt greatly influenced Dave (at the risk of bonsai heresy, Dave's book may be as thorough and useful as John Naka's famous books - you can decide for yourself if you can get your hands on Techniques 1 and 2).

Related books that might interest you…
John Naka’s Bonsai Sketchbook
Our Masters’ Series Juniper Bonsai book (due back in November).
Our Masters’ Series Pine Bonsai book.
Amy Liang’s The Living Art of Bonsai.
Bonsai with Japanese Maples by Peter Adams.