Notes on a Forest

by Graeme Hill

Forest and group plantings are very special bonsai. They evoke many emotions and creative opportunities. Viewing a well composed forest is like looking into the primeval woods; it is not too difficult to imagine birds singing in the branches or buck grazing in the clearing. Forests allow the bonsaist to stretch creative talent and compose any number of different compositions, each unique within itself.

Think of the forests that you have seen for yourself How each is different, how each speaks for itself.

These forests most often consist of same type of tree. So it is best for a bonsai forest to follow a similar discipline. Having more than one species creates a number of problems, such as different growth rates and patterns as well as different horticultural needs. So rule 1, especially for the less experienced growers, is that it is best to stick with one species.

If you are going to grow your own material, then I suggest that you take cuttings from one parent plant. This will ensure that all trees will have the same characteristics such as leaf colour, size and growing habits. Of course this process will take some time and you may not have the patience to wait! However, you can always begin to prepare material now for some later planting, but for your bonsai-forestimmediate needs buy in or collect some fresh material.

Remember too that the trees which make up the forest planting do not have to bee perfect - in fact it is best to have "imperfect" trees as the proximity of the trees almost make it inevitable that perfect shapes will not grow in nature. This way your forest will look all the more natural.

Another tip is to avoid material that has large fruit - somehow your forest would look odd if it had large flowers or fruit in it! Small berried material could be used though.

Turning now to the actual selection of your forest material. When considering which material to use for a group or forest planting, there are a few things to consider first:

  • How big will the planting be?
  • How big will the individual trees be?
  • Do you want evergreen or deciduous trees?

The point is to plan your forest properly visualize the composition so that the selection of material falls into place.

For example, if your forest is to be quite dense and comprise a number of trees over a small area, then use smaller material that does not grow particularly fast On the other hand, if the forest will be spread out then you can use larger material or a tree type that will thicken up over a period.

You will also need material of different ages and sizes so that necessary perspective in your planting can be achieved Bear in mind that trees planted in a forest do not thicken up or grow as fast as single specimens and it is very awkward to get just one or two trees in a group to grow quicker and thicker than the rest So select the right size and thickness for your material from the start a little patience and care here will reap reward later. Again the need to visualize your creation is apparent.

Material which is not suitable are those species that are large-leaved, particularly if the leaves do not miniaturize very well or are particularly fast growing. Most figs would fit into this category. Similarly trees which bear large fruit should be avoided.

Young material tends to be slender and while unsuitable for individual bonsai specimens, they can be used in a group planting to represent forest trees that have grown tall and thin.

Many varieties of trees provide suitable material for group or forest plantings, especially those that have an upright habit. And this includes both evergreen and deciduous species. Small-leaved fine branched trees of either type are suitable for small to medium sized bonsai forests, but coarse growing larger leafed varieties should only be used in taller, larger forest plantings to achieve the right sense of scale.

Many of the forests grown by Kai members use maples, which have been collected from our usual collecting site. These trees are particularly good for forest plantings as they will grow densely together without too much trouble, their leaves reduce nicely, they bud back well and being deciduous the show a good winter silhouette which also enables easier shaping and pruning. They also have lovely spring and autumn colour showings. Other species, which can be used successfully, include:

  • Juniper
  • elm
  • small-leafed figs ego Burt-Davyii
  • cotoneaster
  • zelkova

Indigenous species to try include olives, Diospyros whyteana, Buddleja saligna and Celtis africana.

The larch, birch (both silver and copper), hornbeam, spruce and cryptomeria are often referred to in the literature, but many of these species do not grow well in our climate.

Finally you will need other material as well - moss to represent the grassy glades and stone for a pathway meandering through the forest you have created. Of course the whole exercise is pointless if you don't have a suitable base for your creation. Here you could use a traditional bonsai container. the flatter the better, or a piece of slate or even make your own slab.

Creating bonsai forests is a challenge but like all challenges infinitely rewarding when well done. Enjoy!


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On the weathered shelf

A self-cleaned cat in autumn

Curls around itself.

Random Bonsai Tip

Where the primary branch is thinner than the secondary one, prune back the secondary hard, keep it trimmed back and allow the primary branch to grow unhindered until it has thickened.