There is an ongoing debate in the bonsai world with regard to styling deciduous trees. It boils down to this: some artists feel that it’s not okay to style a deciduous tree in the so-called “pine tree style.” What’s the pine tree style? Well, that’s the classic bonsai shape, curving trunk and branches arranged in a spiral staircase pattern from bottom to top, with the top of the tree being pointed almost like a Christmas tree. Some pines in nature grow this way, but frankly most don’t. Regardless, the pine tree shape is anathema to many bonsai artists when used on deciduous trees.

I reject this whole line of thinking. Since most mature pines don’t meet the standard, and since most junipers are grown in the stylized pine tree style, as opposed to their natural shape, I say we can grow our deciduous trees any way we want. Bonsai, after all, is a representation of a mature tree in nature, not a tree in nature. It’s supposed to evoke a sense of a mature tree in nature. And in that regard, we find that the classic bonsai shape works very well.

A good client of mine has been looking for a nice Water-elm, and he opted for this specimen which has really awesome potential. As it is with many trees, however, you have to know where to look if you’re planning a classic shape. To be specific, you have to be able to find the best trunk line. One reason I collected this tree is that I knew exactly where that trunk line was. Can you see it?

For those of you who didn’t spot the trunk line right away, don’t worry, it gets easier the more trees you work with. The one key principle to keep in mind when studying material in order to find that perfect trunk line is this: movement and taper. (Is that two principles? Since they go hand in hand, and one without the other doesn’t work so well, I’m calling it just one.)

I’ve made it easy to see the trunk line I was planning by using green lines to follow the tree from soil to future apex. Notice that I’ve satisfied both parts of the trunk line principle, movement and taper. I can achieve this result by making two main chops, and those are shown in red. At the back of the tree is a secondary trunk, as thick as the primary trunk and straight as can be. That won’t work with the classic style, so it’s going to get chopped off. Then there’s the main trunk. While it has good taper, it’s awfully straight. I wouldn’t have any choice but to chop it back, but fortunately I have a smaller upright part-way up and I can make that second chop. Once this is done, “all” that will be left of this tree is the trunk line and a few small shoots. I’ll get more shoots, of course, once these chops are done in spring, and from those I’ll create my branch structure.

Here’s another view of the tree, and you can see that unusable trunk in back that’s got to go. Now, when you find yourself in these situations, you have to make the chops bearing in mind the potential for damaging your tree. If I don’t make this chop just right, I’ll either have a big hump in back of the tree that won’t look natural, or I’ll risk killing the trunk below it all the way to the soil. My goal is to make this chop in such a way that I get rebudding below the chop. If this happens, I’ll know that I won’t have to worry about dieback.

Here’s another view of the tree, from a different angle. I wanted you to see the trunk line and chops. Again, I get movement and taper by making these two main chops.

Now, you may be wondering about that final leg of the trunk as it makes its way to what will be the new apex of the tree. Don’t worry, I also have a smaller branch coming off this part of the trunk line that is smaller in diameter. I can cut back to it, or even chop the leader back and regrow the final apex. I’ll know better in spring when the work begins.

And finally, a quick sketch of where I think this tree can go. Notice that there are branches where both of the main chops will be made. These are critical to the design, and will allow us to achieve a classically styled Water-elm bonsai. I don’t know about you, but I won’t have any problem whatsoever with this approach.

Let me know what you think. Do you have a lot of practice finding your trunk lines? Have you gotten good at it. Leave me a comment below.