This series of four articles first appeared as part of Chapter 12 of my first book Bonsai Inspirations 1 and this excerpt contains what I believe to be essential information on how to design, build and improve the branches and branch structure of a deciduous or broadleaf bonsai.
Note that extensive information of how to build the branch structures of coniferous bonsai, such as Juniper and Pine, are contained within Bonsai Inspirations 2
THE IMPORTANCE OF BRANCH TAPER IN BONSAI
Is a bonsai ever ‘complete’? What improvements can be made to a well-ramified bonsai? Or does a bonsai remain in stasis once it reaches a certain point in its development, a finished work of Art?
The answer to these questions is a resounding no! A bonsai is never finished. This statement is something of a cliche amongst enthusiasts but it is also a statement that holds true. While the trunk of a bonsai is the anchor, the ‘base’ of any design that only marginally changes once the tree is growing in a bonsai pot, the branches are far more fluid and changeable.
Artistically, the branches are used to reflect the strength and age of the main feature of the tree, the trunk, and improvements to the impact that the branches have on the tree itself are relatively easy to make.
One of the best ways of indicating the great age of a bonsai to it’s viewer is taper in the branches. Just by taking a walk out into nature during the Winter and the evidence of the importance of taper is there for all to see.
Whether you are an avid bonsai or tree enthusiast or someone with little interest in the Art, it is immediately obvious from this image that the tree is fairly young.
To understand what makes a tree look old and to then be able to replicate this in a bonsai, first it is helpful to understand why the tree above is so obviously not very old. Study the tree as though seeing it out of context; in other words see it as you would a bonsai where there are no external visual references such as surrounding vegetation or nearby trees.
The first part of the tree that the eye notices (consciously or subconsciously) is the trunk. The trunk is very straight and this can often be an indicator of a juvenile tree but as anyone who has seen images of Dawn Redwoods with their 50metre plus trunks will testify, having a straight trunk is not conclusive evidence of immaturity.
However, the fact that the base and the top of the trunk are almost indiscernible in diameter does give a visual clue to age. In other words, the fact that there is little taper between the base and the top of the trunk.
The second part, or aspect, of the tree that the eye notices are the branches. On first glance they seem juvenile. Some enthusiasts would believe that the fact that the branches grow upward (rather than growing downward) creates this impression and accordingly will style the branches of their bonsai so that they grow downwards or on horizontal planes ‘to give an impression of age’. My belief is that this idea is incorrect and a bonsai consisting entirely of downward growing branches does not look like a real tree but a caricuture or cartoon-image of a real tree.
My belief is that the branches look immature because they lack taper. They lack taper from where the branches grow from the trunk to their tips, and also there is little taper from the trunk to the branches and relatively little difference in size (and there taper and scale) between the trunkbase (the thickest part of the tree) and the very tips of the branches (the thinnest parts of the tree).
These two trees were photographed just 50 metres further along the same river as the previous tree.
Seen out of context of their surroundings, it is still immediately obvious that these trees are considerably older. They create an immediate impression of age. But what are the key differences between these two trees and the juvenile tree pictured earlier. How can we apply these visual keys to our bonsai to increase their impression of age?
Unlike with the juvenile tree, it is immediately obvious that the trunk is old. But rather than this being because the trunk has movement (curves and bends) or the mature bark that is barely noticeable in this image, it is the taper of the trunk that shows us that the tree is considerably older. We know that the trunk must be big and wide and therefore old, because in contrast to the base of the trunk, the top of the trunk is much thinner.
The real key indicator of age in this image is the massive difference between the very fine branch tips and the trunkbase.
Multi-trunk Willows seen growing in a field in middle England.
This contrast of delicate fine twigs and a rugged, powerful trunk is emotive to even the undiscerning viewer, and is much clearer to the eye than the fact that the trunk itself does or doesn’t have taper or whether the branches grow upwardsor downwards! And this is why taper is so important in bonsai, we need to replicate the naturally occurring visual clues that nature itself provides for us.
An old Oak seen growing in a field near Manchester UK.
This Oak photographed in Norfolk, UK is an excellent example of the power of taper as a visual clue of age. As a 50cm tall bonsai this tree would break so many of the old ‘rules’ that it would no doubt be cast aside by anyone trying to create a classically-styled bonsai. However, despite what would be described as ‘faults’ in bonsai circles, this is undoubtably a beautiful tree of impressive age and stature, one that could be studied as well as enjoyed for many years.
Modern-day thinking in bonsai is that if we are trying to imitate the natural beauty of trees rather than creating abstract cartoon-copies of other bonsai we have seen and there are now a number of bonsai artists around the world that are using nature’s visual clues (including taper) to create high-quality bonsai art.
So how do we apply taper to the example of a deciduous tree branch? And how can this branch be improved further over the forthcoming years?