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Formal Upright Bonsai: Techniques, Tips, And Tree Selection

Formal Upright Bonsai: Techniques, Tips, And Tree Selection
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Bonsai is a traditional art form that involves cultivating miniature trees to mimic the shape and scale of full-sized trees. One of the foundational styles in bonsai cultivation is the formal upright style, known as "Chokkan" in Japanese. In this style, the tree features a straight, vertical trunk and branches that decrease in size as they move upwards. The formal upright style is commonly seen in nature, especially in trees that have grown in open areas with abundant sunlight. This guide will provide an overview of the formal upright bonsai style, detailing its characteristics, cultivation techniques, and recommended tree species for best results. Whether you're new to bonsai or looking to refine your skills, this guide aims to offer valuable insights into mastering the formal upright style.

Description of the Formal Upright Style

The formal upright style, known as "Chokkan" in Japanese, is one of the primary and most traditional styles in bonsai cultivation. This style is characterized by:

  • Straight Trunk: The defining feature of the formal upright style is its straight, vertical trunk. The trunk should not exhibit any significant curves or bends and should maintain its verticality from base to apex.

  • Branch Arrangement: Branches are arranged in a symmetrical pattern, starting thick and long at the bottom and gradually becoming thinner and shorter as they ascend the tree. Typically, the first and most massive branch should be about one-third of the way up the trunk, with subsequent branches alternating sides and reducing in size.

  • Tapering: The trunk should exhibit a consistent taper, meaning it is thickest at the base and gradually narrows as it reaches the tree's apex. This tapering gives the tree a sense of depth and scale.

  • Root Spread: The roots of the tree, known as the 'nebari', should spread out evenly from the base, providing stability and visual balance to the tree.

The formal upright style aims to represent trees that have grown in open areas with unobstructed access to sunlight, such as meadows or mountaintops. These trees have not been influenced by external forces, allowing them to grow straight and tall. In bonsai, the Chokkan style captures this essence, presenting a tree that is both majestic and serene in its simplicity.

How to Create a Formal Upright Bonsai

Creating a formal upright, or "Chokkan", bonsai requires careful attention to detail and a deep understanding of the tree's growth patterns. Here are the key steps to achieve this revered style:

  1. Tree Selection:

    • Start with a young tree that exhibits a straight trunk or one that can be trained to grow straight. The tree should have healthy roots and a balanced distribution of branches.
  2. Initial Pruning:

    • Remove any unwanted branches, especially those that are too low on the trunk or grow directly opposite another branch. This step helps in defining the tree's structure early on.
  3. Trunk Training:

    • If the tree's trunk isn't naturally straight, use gentle wiring techniques to guide it. Ensure the wire is not too tight, as it can damage the bark. Regularly check and adjust the wire as the tree grows.
  4. Branch Positioning:

    • The first primary branch should be positioned about one-third of the way up the trunk. Subsequent branches should alternate sides and gradually reduce in size as they ascend.
    • Use wires to position the branches horizontally, ensuring they don't overlap or crowd each other.
  5. Tapering:

    • Ensure the trunk maintains a consistent taper from the base to the apex. Regular pruning and pinching can help achieve and maintain this desired shape.
  6. Root Care:

    • The roots (nebari) should spread evenly from the tree's base. Periodically check the roots and trim any that grow downward or disrupt the radial pattern.
  7. Repotting:

    • Repot the bonsai every couple of years to refresh the soil and inspect the roots. When repotting, ensure the tree stands straight in the pot, reinforcing the formal upright style.
  8. Maintenance:

    • Regularly prune and pinch the bonsai to maintain its shape. Monitor its growth and make adjustments as needed to preserve the formal upright form.

By carefully following these steps and paying attention to the tree's natural tendencies, one can craft a beautiful formal upright bonsai that captures the essence of trees growing in open, sunlit areas.

Best Species for Formal Upright Bonsai

Selecting the right species is pivotal when crafting a formal upright bonsai. Some tree species naturally exhibit growth patterns and characteristics that lend themselves well to the "Chokkan" style. Here are some of the best species for this purpose:

  1. Acer palmatum (Japanese Maple):

    • A versatile species known for its stunning autumn foliage. It possesses a natural inclination towards an upright growth pattern, making it a popular choice for the formal upright style.
  2. Juniperus (Juniper):

    • Junipers are evergreen conifers that offer flexibility in shaping. Many juniper species, especially the Shimpaku juniper, are favored for their naturally straight trunks and dense foliage.
  3. Pinus (Pine):

    • Pines, especially the Japanese Black Pine and White Pine, are traditional choices for formal upright bonsai. They have strong, tall trunks and needles that provide a distinct texture.
  4. Pseudolarix amabilis (Golden Larch):

    • Known for its golden autumn needles, the Golden Larch has a straight trunk and symmetrical branching, making it a prime candidate for the Chokkan style.
  5. Larix (Larch):

    • Larch trees are deciduous conifers that exhibit upright growth. Their seasonal needle drop provides a unique aesthetic, showcasing the tree's structure in winter.
  6. Sequoia (Redwood):

    • Redwoods are tall, majestic trees known for their straight trunks and even branch distribution. Their natural height and structure make them excellent candidates for the formal upright style.
  7. Cryptomeria (Japanese Cedar):

    • Cryptomeria trees have a naturally conical shape with a straight trunk, making them suitable for the Chokkan style. Their dense foliage and adaptability to pruning add to their appeal for bonsai cultivation.

Selecting the right species is the foundation of a successful formal upright bonsai. Each of these species offers unique characteristics, but all are well-suited to represent the beauty and simplicity of the Chokkan style.

Pot Selection and Placement

The pot for a formal upright bonsai serves both a functional and aesthetic purpose. It's essential to choose a pot that complements the tree's stature and ensures its health.

When considering pot size, it's vital to find a pot in proportion to the tree. For a formal upright bonsai, the pot's length should generally be about two-thirds the height of the tree, and its depth should be approximately the thickness of the tree's trunk at its base.

The shape of the pot plays a significant role in the overall appearance. Rectangular and oval pots are traditional choices for the formal upright style, providing stability and highlighting the tree's straight trunk. It's best to opt for pots with simple designs, avoiding overly ornate or intricate patterns that might detract from the tree.

In terms of color, neutral hues like browns, grays, and unglazed terracotta are preferred. These colors blend seamlessly with the natural tones of the tree. However, if the tree has unique seasonal colors, such as the red leaves of a Japanese Maple, a pot with a contrasting color might be an option.

Drainage is a crucial factor for the tree's health. The pot should have adequate drainage holes to prevent waterlogging and ensure the roots remain healthy.

For the placement of the formal upright bonsai within the pot, centering the tree is ideal. This positioning emphasizes its symmetry and ensures the primary branches have ample space to grow. A slight mound of soil in the center can elevate the tree, aiding in drainage and giving it prominence.

Lastly, showcasing the nebari, or the tree's root spread, is an essential aspect of the presentation. The roots should be partially visible above the soil line, adding stability and visual appeal to the bonsai.

The right pot selection and placement can significantly enhance the overall presentation of a formal upright bonsai, making the tree the focal point while being supported by a harmonious container.

Maintenance and Care

Maintaining a formal upright bonsai requires consistent care and attention to ensure its health and preserve its aesthetic appeal. Here's a concise guide to the fundamental aspects of maintenance and care for this style:

Watering: Proper hydration is essential for bonsai health. Water the tree when the top layer of soil begins to feel dry. Ensure that water reaches the roots by watering until it drains out of the pot's bottom. Be cautious of over-watering, as it can lead to root rot.

Feeding: Regularly nourish your bonsai with a balanced fertilizer to provide essential nutrients. During the growing season, feed the tree every two weeks, reducing the frequency in the dormant season.

Pruning: Periodic pruning helps maintain the tree's shape and encourages healthy growth. Remove any dead or unwanted branches and regularly trim back overly long branches to maintain the formal upright structure.

Wiring: To guide the growth of branches and maintain the desired form, use bonsai wiring techniques. Always monitor the wired branches to ensure the wire doesn't cut into the bark, and remove the wire once the desired shape is achieved.

Repotting: Every two to three years, repot the bonsai to refresh the soil and inspect the roots. This process ensures the tree doesn't become root-bound and continues to receive adequate nutrients.

Pest and Disease Control: Monitor your bonsai for signs of pests, such as aphids or spider mites, and diseases like fungal infections. Address any issues promptly with appropriate treatments to ensure the tree's health.

Protection: Depending on the species, protect your bonsai from extreme weather conditions. In very cold climates, consider bringing the tree indoors or providing insulation during winter. In hot climates, ensure the bonsai is shielded from intense midday sun.

While the formal upright style embodies simplicity, maintaining its elegance requires regular care. With diligent attention to its needs, your bonsai will thrive and continue to be a testament to the beauty of nature in miniature.

Advanced Techniques

Delving deeper into the art of bonsai cultivation, several advanced techniques can elevate the aesthetics and health of your formal upright bonsai. Mastering these methods can truly differentiate a novice tree from a showpiece:

Layering: This is a propagation technique where a branch can be induced to form roots while still attached to the parent tree. Once roots have developed, the branch can be separated and grown as a new tree. Layering can be beneficial if a particular branch has an ideal form for a new formal upright bonsai.

Defoliation: By removing leaves from deciduous trees during the growing season, you force the tree to grow new, smaller leaves. This technique can help in achieving a more refined and proportional look, especially in trees with larger leaves.

Grafting: If a part of the tree lacks branches or has weak growth, grafting can introduce a branch from another tree of the same species. This allows for more controlled shaping and design.

Deadwood Techniques: While more common in styles like "Shari" or "Jin", introducing deadwood features can add age and character to a formal upright bonsai. This involves carefully stripping bark to create the appearance of natural wear and age.

Leaf Trimming: Instead of removing entire leaves, trimming a portion of the leaf can encourage smaller leaf growth. This is especially useful for species with naturally large leaves to keep them in scale with the bonsai.

Root Pruning: During repotting, carefully pruning the roots can encourage a more compact root system. This not only helps in maintaining the tree's size but also ensures a healthier and more efficient nutrient uptake.

Wound Sealing: After significant cuts or pruning, using wound sealants can promote healing and prevent diseases. It also reduces unsightly scars, maintaining the tree's natural appearance.

Incorporating these advanced techniques requires a deep understanding of the tree's biology and growth patterns. While they offer more control and refinement in shaping and design, they should be approached with caution and ideally under the guidance of experienced bonsai practitioners. As with all bonsai practices, the goal is to work in harmony with the tree's natural tendencies, enhancing its beauty while ensuring its health and vitality.

Showcasing Formal Upright Bonsai

Showcasing a formal upright bonsai is an art in itself. The way you present your bonsai can greatly impact the viewer's experience and perception of your carefully cultivated tree.

A display stand can be a game-changer. By elevating your bonsai, the stand offers it prominence. Wooden or stone stands, characterized by their simplicity, often work best. Their understated elegance ensures that the bonsai remains the center of attention.

The background plays a pivotal role. A neutral or natural backdrop, be it a plain wall, wooden panels, or even other plants, ensures that the viewer's attention isn't diverted. The bonsai should always remain the focal point, with the background acting as a subtle enhancer.

While the bonsai is the star of the show, complementary elements can add depth and context to the display. Accent plants or decorative stones, when used sparingly, provide a sense of scale and environment. However, they should always play a secondary role, subtly augmenting the beauty of the bonsai.

Lighting can transform the way a bonsai is perceived. Soft, diffused natural lighting brings out the best in a bonsai, highlighting its intricate details and colors. For those showcasing their bonsai indoors or during the evening, soft indirect lighting can mimic natural light, emphasizing the tree's unique features without overpowering them.

Lastly, the orientation of the bonsai is crucial. Every bonsai has a front – the side that best captures its essence and form. When showcasing, ensure this side faces the viewer, offering them the most optimal and aesthetic view of the tree.

In essence, showcasing a formal upright bonsai is about creating a harmonious environment where the tree can be appreciated in all its splendor. Every element of the display, from the stand to the lighting, should work in tandem to celebrate the beauty and artistry of the bonsai.


The art of bonsai, particularly the formal upright style, is a testament to the harmonious coexistence of nature and human intervention. Through meticulous care, patience, and understanding, enthusiasts can sculpt a piece of nature into a living masterpiece that tells a story of resilience, growth, and beauty. The formal upright, or "Chokkan", is a foundational style in bonsai artistry, embodying simplicity, elegance, and the natural essence of trees growing in open landscapes.

As with any craft, the journey of cultivating a formal upright bonsai is filled with challenges and learning opportunities. From selecting the right species and pot to mastering advanced techniques, every step shapes the tree's narrative. Moreover, showcasing the bonsai effectively amplifies its beauty, allowing viewers to fully appreciate the dedication behind its creation.

In wrapping up, the world of formal upright bonsai is a captivating blend of tradition, art, and nature. Whether you're a seasoned practitioner or a curious admirer, there's always more to discover, learn, and appreciate in this timeless art form.

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