Displaying bonsai

by Isabel Hofmeyr

The objective of displaying bonsai according to John Naka is "to create nature's greatness into a small space" (1) or, as John Palmer puts it, "to create in a limited bounded space the grandeur of a natural scene" (2).

In Japan the display takes place in the Tokonama, a special alcove in the home for this purpose. Scrolls and other objects like incense burners are also used in the display. As we do not usually have such a space I am leaving scrolls etc. out of the discussion.

For any display to succeed a plain background is required, which is taller than the tree to be displayed and also covers the full width of the display area. The surface of the table is usually covered by a tatami mat made of rice straw.

Elements in the display

The elements are the tree, and possibly a viewing stone (suiseki) and/or an accent plant to complement the tree. A large bonsai is usually displayed alone while less majestic trees are enhanced by the use of the other elements.


According to a famous Chinese bonsai master a bonsai is compared to a beautiful lady. The tree is the lady herself, the pot is her general attire and the stand her shoes. Exhibiting a bonsai without a stand is very much like a lady appearing in public without any shoes. (3)

displaying-bonsai-fig1Figure 1. Very large bonsai should be displayed by itself, no other plant is needed. Do not place it dead centre. This tree has more movement on the left so more space is needed at (A) and less at (B), but more space is given at (C) than at (D) for balance. Leave plenty of space at the top for the apex (E).

Types of stands

Special wooden tables may be used which can be either low tables, which may be simple or ornate, or flat stands with very short legs or rolled ends. Tall tables are used for cascades. Simple stands may be one of the following: a flat board, a natural wooden slab, a slice from a trunk with the bark retained or a woven bamboo mat.

displaying-bonsai-fig2Figure2. The placement depends on the slant or flow of the tree. This tree has strong movement towards the right, so leave more space on the right side (A), and less on the left (B). This will keep in a balance position on the stand.

Selection of stands

The main element in the display is the tree and therefore it gets the Largest and tallest stand. Its function is to enhance the tree and consequently care must be taken that the stand is in harmony with the tree as well as the pot. As it is impossible in an article like this to show all the possibilities, you are advised to study John Naka's excellent drawings and pictures in his book Bonsai Techniques II on page 377-385 for this purpose. Good illustrated articles are found in Bonsai Today issue no.I8 (p.37-42) and no.68 (p.58-61).

Size of stands

A rule of thumb is that the stand should be one and a third to one and half times the length of the pot. In the case of cascades the stand should be tall enough that the tail of the cascade does not touch the table.

displaying-bonsai-fig3 Figure 3. Incorrect position in an off-balance arrangement.

Placement of the tree on the stand

Debora Koreshoff (4) states categorically that the tree should be placed in the center of the stand, but other authors do not agree. Formal upright trees, a tree in a round pot on a round stand or a square pot on a square stand are placed in the center of the stand. A windswept tree or one with a leaning trunk or a planting, which is tall on one side is placed off-center on the stand to provide space for example on the downwind side. (Fig. 2 & 3).

One way of working out the position is by dividing the stand into thirds and again dividing the center one third into three. The center of the pot is placed on either of the last dividing lines.

Accent plants

Accent plants are placed on flat stands for example bamboo mats or wood slices while suiseki may be placed on low stands.

Placing two elements

This may be best explained by means of sketches by John Naka. The tree is placed towards the back of the available space and towards one side while the second element is laced to the front as shown. The spacings should be uneven and the minor element should not be placed on a line with or in front of the tree. The tree should never be in the center but to either the left or the right. (Fig. 4-6).

displaying-bonsai-fig4Figure 4. The space between (A) (B) and (C) (D) should be uneven as well as the space between (E) (F) and (G) (H).

displaying-bonsai-fig5Figure 5. Incorrect

displaying-bonsai-fig6Figure 6. Incorrect

Placing three elements

In one case the tree is placed towards the back on one side. The stone is placed further forward on the other side with the accent plant at center front. (Fig. 7).

displaying-bonsai-fig7Figure 7

Another placing has the tree towards the back, but nearer to the center, the suiseki is a little forward on one side and the accent plant still further forward on the other side. (Fig.8).

displaying-bonsai-fig8Figure 8

With these guidelines one should be able to assemble a good display.


  1. John Y Naka: Bonsai Techniques II, p.367
  2. John Palmer: "The Art of Bonsai Display" in Bonsai Today, no. 7, p.33.
  3. Peter Chan: Bonsai, p.158
  4. Debora Koreshoff: Bonsai, p.247

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Random Bonsai Tip

If your trunk lacks taper split the base of the trunk from below and plug the ends open with a piece of wood or a small stone.