Togetherness - Multiple-trunk bonsai

By Victoria Petermann

What binds together the different styles of multiple-trunk bonsai as a group, is the fact that one should not look upon each individual tree of the planting as a finished bonsai. It is only possible to admire them to the full when viewed together as a unit composed of different parts.

The categories, which fall under this description, are quite varied and in a way they allow the greatest flexibility of design and exploration of new frontiers in their creation. To give an example, note the advent of saikei, which came about at the end of World War II. This style originated as a way of using young plant material. It allows the trees time to mature into plants that could, at some point in the future, be used as single specimens and at the same time gives enjoyment As it happens, today most saikei are created for their own sake and the trees are never removed or replaced from their positions.

At this point I would like to divide multiple tree plantings into two categories:

  • Plantings connected at the root:

Where all the trees in the group share one root system, e.g. rafts.

  • Plantings not connected at the root: Where each tree in the group has its own individual root system, e.g. forests.

Into these two categories fall the following types of plantings:

  1. Two or three tree plantings
  2. Forests and rafts
  3. Saikei

When looking at the above list, one finds that the two and three trunk trees are the closest in design to the single trunk bonsai. As we move down this list, the further away we move from these classical images, into the realm of landscape and the creation of what appears to be a vast expanse of countryside in a comparatively small pot or on a slab.

Two and three trunk groupings

With two and three trunk trees it is important when designing them not to allow the trunks to compete with each other. Each trunk must complement the other and this is easier to achieve when one of the trunks is allowed to be considerably larger than the other. The closer together in size the trunks are, the harder it is to achieve balance in the design. The second factor to bear in mind when designing this kind of planting is not to make a static and one-dimensional design. The quickest way to achieve interest is by not planting the trees in a straight line but rather to allow one to slightly hide behind the other at the base.

multi-trunk-bonsai1Regardless of whether you are dealing with individual plants or with plants connected at the base, the importance is to select your plants carefully. Do not just choose any plant that you are not sure what to do with and then decide to turn it into a two or three tree planting. Always allow the plants to dictate what design they are going to lend themselves to. You will find that there are not too many root connected plants that will allow for this kind of design, but when you do find one it is well worth the effort of transforming it into a bonsai.

Finally, when designing this kind of planting, always think of the different trunks as one single trunk in order to be able to place the branches in a manner that will encompass all the plants. Usually the first branch comes out of the smallest trunk and the rest are placed following the pattern of left-back-right branch placement that is customary with the single trunk trees in order to achieve three-dimensional movement in space.


multi-trunk-bonsai2When designing forests, it is important to have a selection of different size trees. The greater the selection the easier it will be to create movement and balance in the planting. The number of trees in a planting is of no great importance, although it is easier to create dynamic changes when an odd number of trees are used. It is up to you whether you want to make a large planting, of say twenty trees or more, or if you prefer to make a small size planting, with only as few as say five trees.

Regardless of the number of trees, a forest planting must convey the illusion of the viewer being inside the real thing and it must allow the viewer to become a part of the woodland scene. Forests in nature are composed of a variety of different plants. For bonsai purposes it is best to keep to one plant species in a group planting, as it is easier to provide for its horticultural needs as a group in a container than when different species are mixed together. Whether you decide to mix different plants together or not, the choice in the end is yours and depends upon the specific forest design you have in mind.

When creating a forest it is of great importance to give depth to the planting as this gives the illusion of space and this quality will allow you to enter the scenery in your mind's eye. One of the simplest ways to achieve space is by placing the tallest and thickest trees toward the front of the planting and diminish the trunk size toward the back until you reach the smallest trees.

Another way to ensure depth and at the same time create movement in the forest is by making sure that your trees are not planted in a straight line. Allow some trees to hide a little behind others and "scatter" them unevenly within the group; in other words do not place the same number of trees in one half of the forest as in the other. It is only in man-made plantation forests that all trees grow to be the same size and are aligned into symmetrical straight rows.

In trying to create depth, it also helps if you do not place your tallest and thickest tree in the middle of the container but rather place it a little to the front and to one side. This is the tree that will direct the mood of your whole planting If you choose a tall straight and fairly slim tree, in keeping with the type of tree that grows in the center of a forest, the rest of the trees in the planting must have similar characteristics. If instead you choose a curved and thick tree similar to those that grow at the edges of forests, all the other trees in the planting must follow suit. They should bend in a way that echoes the bends of the principal tree and not against it, in this way it is possible to create a sense of balanced movement in the group.

I believe that the most important quality, which a forest planting should have, is naturalness This, I find, is not so simple to achieve unless you are prepared to break the rules a little. As I said before, it is only in man-made timber plantations that trees are all the same in growth pattern and even there I am sure that nature breaks a few rules. I find that if, for example, one places a straight trunk tree at a slight angle in a forest of otherwise upright growing straight trunks or if a tree with a straight trunk is planted to grow to one side and slightly apart from curved trunk trees, then we are bringing an element of chance into our planting. In other words we are introducing nature to our planting through a calculated error in design. Nature is not perfect and as such our designs should not be so perfect that we lose that quality that gives them life.

Another way to give a natural feel to a forest is to landscape the soil so as not to end up with a flat surface where the roots anchor themselves. It always looks good to have some parts of the soil raised and some lowered and to even introduce the impression of a path moving away into the forest. The use of mosses and other small shallow rooted plants or even the use of fine gravel will also help to increase the feeling of being within a natural woodland.

In forest designs it is not so much the individual trees that give character to the planting but the sum of the different trees. Branches are placed according to where they are going to receive the greatest amount of sunlight in such a way that the branches of one tree do not obscure the branches of another as the shaded tree would in time wither and die When looking at the planting from a distance, the foliage outline should be that of a gentle uneven sided triangle, in this way reflecting the outline created by single trunk trees.


The main difference between forest plantings and rafts lies in their root system Rafts in nature are created when a tree falls down, due to a heavy storm, the effect of wind, a damaged root system in one side etc, and the branches, which remain facing the sky continue growing into trunks while sharing a common root system.

Tmulti-trunk-bonsai3his root system can either be straight or sinuous, depending on the shape of the trunk of the original tree. The newly formed trunks conform in many ways to the growth characteristics of a forest planting while retaining the very definite character that a shared root system will give them. For this reason it is important to choose plants that lend themselves easily to this design, both for their aesthetic qualities and for the ease of issuing roots from old wood.

The chosen plant has the branches wired so that all face in one direction, one side of the trunk is then stripped of bark and rooting hormone should be applied to this section to encourage the development of new roots. The original root system of the plant together with the de-barked part of the trunk is then buried under soil in a large training container. The wired branches are arranged in a pleasing manner and the planting is left alone to produce new roots and to let the branches develop into the new trunks (watch out for wire bite) Once the new root system is well established, the old root system can be cut away and the newly formed raft can slowly be moved into progressively smaller containers until it is finally planted into it's final bonsai pot.


Although saikei can also be created using only one tree, it is usually created using many and it is a multiple-trunk style far removed from the way a single-trunk bonsai looks. In this kind of planting a part of a natural landscape is captured in a container and to this end other landscaping material such as rocks and sand are often used. The one point to remember when designing a saikei is that the trees and the rocks must never fight each other as the focus in the planting. It does not matter which is more important but it is best to allow one element to be dominant.

Changing the relative importance of these two elements will give very different moods and character to the final composition. There are endless alternatives for design. Some designs use only one rock (or as mentioned above, only one tree) while others use many. If many rocks are used, it is best to "plant" them in the same manner that one would plant trees in a forest, i.e. the biggest rock sets the mood for the composition and should be planted first, rocks should never be planted in a straight line, etc Always bear in mind that in any given landscape, the rocks in nature were placed first, before the trees where even seedlings and in creating a saikei the same order of placement should be followed as this will give the planting a sense of permanence.

The kinds of landscape that can be shown are very varied, ranging from seashore wind battered scenes to high mountain top designs where the trees cling precariously to their scant perches on the mountainside. Clearly, the individual trees in this kind of planting lose their impact when compared to the composition as a whole.

When first starting bonsai, most people explore the single-trunk designs, learning how to achieve beauty and balance in their plantings while following some strict (and some not so strict) guidelines. These rules help to achieve results in a fairly short space of time but after a while, new ideas need to be considered in order to maintain freshness in new designs. It is at this point in time that the freedom of approach involved in making a planting, such as a saikei, becomes vital in maintaining a creative approach to design.

We often have a selection of trees, which on their own are quite uninteresting, but when viewed together in a group, they start conveying a feeling which is quite different from anything they could achieve individually. Without the freedom of a creative approach these kinds of plantings would not be possible. It is these endless possibilities that make multiple-plantings so exciting, challenging and worthwhile; give them a try!


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for ever on a stone... ~ Doug Hall

Random Bonsai Tip

When a tree has reversed taper or a narrowed 'waistline' above the nebari, you could do an airlayering just above the narrow section; or you could damage the cambium layer by either hammering gently with a mallet or by piercing the bark right into the cambium with a sharp object eg. scissors or an awl. You could also make deep incisions along the grain of the bark, where the healing process will cause scarring which would then thicken the trunk.