by Graeme Hill

Imagine standing looking at a sheer cliff face, cracked and craggy, in sharp sunlight or shrouded in mist, dry or complemented with waterfalls. And there, clinging tenaciously on ledges and in the cracks, are the green splashes of trees reaching out for sunlight, bent by gravity and the force of the elements to grow out horizontally or to curve downwards towards the earth. These are the Han Kengai and Kengai bonsai.

Keep this environmental picture, the mood of the landscape, firmly in mind when you set about creating your cascade bonsai and also the subsequent display of it.

Cascade bonsai are not common; perhaps because somehow they seem unnatural - not in keeping with our common perception of how trees should grow! Perhaps too, because of their unusual structure they present an awkwardness and difficulty in terms of trunk design and balance as they tease our sense of conventionalism. Yet, done well they exude a unique beauty and sense of triumph over adversity.

Hopefully this article will encourage the reader to meet the creative challenge!

All cascades rise out of the soil and shortly thereafter the main trunk line arches away from the upright into a downward direction. Within each of the two main styles of semi- and full cascades, a number of sub-styles exist such as windswept, side sweeping and bunjin but for simplicity's sake I will confine my comments here to the overall features and basic guidelines without too much detail on the variations.


Usually defined as a trunk style, which has the cascade tip below the rim but above the base line of the pot. However, this is not a hard and fast rule, for if planted in a shallow or medium cascade pot the tip may well be below the pot base. Thus a more accurate definition relates to the angle of the descent of the trunk which should be from just below the horizontal to 35 degrees further down.


The crown

Generally speaking a low crown is present, rising up above the trunk line and formed by a branch which has an upward growth. This crown may be viewed as a small informal upright as it should have all the characteristics of a small tree as if "grafted" onto the main trunk line.

This crown is usually positioned more or less directly over the trunk as it emerges from the soil. However, it could be placed one third or even two thirds along the horizontal length of the trunk in which case it should best represent the first green sign of life on the tree, but well placed preceding jins can add to the mood being created and give the required balance.

The trunk line

Snaking out below the horizontal the trunk may have a variety of shapes but stick-like straight lines should be avoided. Viewed from above the trunk should have a visually pleasing number of lateral curves, usually quite shallow, each diminishing in depth towards the tip or apex of the trunk To add to the mood these curves may be quite gentle and soft, or perhaps sharp and hard to depict a more hostile environment such as a very windy cliff face. Viewed from the side the trunk should again have some movement to add depth but the extent of such vertical movement is limited due to the shallow fall of the cascade.

While a single trunk is commonly used, multiple trunks are permissible provided of course, that they complement each other and flow naturally together. Similarly the main trunk may split into two or more sub-branches, each having its own presence but seen together creating one composite whole.


Branches along the length of the trunk should follow the usual rules, so creating a triangular dimension with the apex at the head of the imaginary inverted triangle. Thus the length of the branches shorten towards the tip or apex of the cascade. No branches should occur on the underside of the trunk while side branches should grow out horizontally from the outside curves of the trunk Try in places to have some foliage hiding the trunk itself as this adds character and mystic.

Softer gentle curves should be complemented by longer downward sloping branches well covered with foliage (the underside of all branches should be bare) whereas sharper curves against a bare gnarled trunk should have few shorter branches with sparse foliage in keeping with their more hostile environment.

The tip (apex)

Just to confuse us, the main trunk line or cascade is sometimes referred to as a branch in which case the end is called the tip with the apex being the top of the crown. Others refer to the cascade as the trunk and the end of it an apex - a cascade is after all an inverted tree' In this article I have referred to the cascade (or tail) as the trunk and the end of it as either the tip or the apex so that both should be read in this context.

The tip may be foliated or within a harsh environmental context it may be bare and dead. Finish off the cascade in a way congruent with the mood you have established along the way.


These are an important feature of the semi-cascade, more particularly if it is a larger specimen, and more so than in a full cascade. Because the trunk is reaching out almost horizontally, the forces of gravity, compounded by the elements such as snow and rain, are greater and act to pull the tree down into a steeper fall. Against this the tree has to create its own counter balance and this is reflected in the root system rather like the leaning trunk style. Under the arch of the trunk the roots have to create a mechanism to stop the tree from being pulled over and this manifests in a buttress while on the opposite side the roots anchor the tree by a strong thick root leading out to disappear some distance from the trunk.

Over time the Han Kengai should develop these roots quite naturally and they should be exposed to illustrate the power and solidity of the tree.


More dramatic than its cousin Han Kengai, the Kengai cascade is steep, anywhere from 35 to 90 degrees below the horizontal with its tip invariably below the base of its pot. Full cascades are often created as imaginary waterfalls; the crown seen as mist rising from the head of the fall as it plunges down to the depths below. The actual cascade or tail is called nagare in Japanese meaning "flow" or "flowing"; the trunk represents the cascading stream and the branches clouds of mist around each fall along the way.

As with its opposite upright forms, the full cascade comes in two main categories - the formal and the informal styles. In the formal full cascade an imaginary line passing up from the tip of the cascade through the trunk as it emerges from the soil and up to the top of the crown should be perpendicular. The curving main trunk falls away to the right and/or left of this line but with the tip coming back to rest on it. The informal does not have this symmetry as the top of the crown, the emerging trunk and cascade tip may be at different but complementary angles from one another. In fact in some cases there may well be no crown at all!

cascade-bonsai-fig2Formal full cascade

cascade-bonsai-fig3Informal full cascade

The crown

The crown should add balance to the cascade, off-setting the falling angle of the main trunk or tail of the cascade. Its weight and height must be in proportion to the size and strength of the tail. The crown may just be a dense cloud sitting at the head or a taller branched structure with two or three side branches and its own apex ĂȘin essence a small upright tree in its own right. Beware though that the crown should not dominate but merely complement the main feature - the cascade itself.

The trunk

Emerging from the earth the trunk should rise strongly and off the vertical. Shortly thereafter it should bend sharply down flowing either to the right or left as the case may be but not directly towards the viewer. Take care not to have the trunk sag onto the edge of the pot as it must convey the strength to hold its own weight as it tumbles out and down over the edge of the cliff.

Usually, but not necessarily so, the trunk will thereafter follow a number of strong deep curves gradually getting narrower and shallower towards the tip. However, even if these strong curves are not present there must be some lateral movement of the trunk to lend a sense of reality and balance.

One variation on the waterfall theme is to use a multi-trunked specimen where each foliated trunk cascades almost vertically to give the impression of a wide fall of water or alternatively of a stream, which has divided, into a number of falls as it tumbles down the mountainside.

In the single cascade, the tail should not be on one plane when viewed from the side. At times the fall should be steeper or shallower to add a sense of depth and interest.


The first main branch, which will probably be the longest and strongest, should occur on the outside of the first curve of the tail as it begins its downward descent. This should balance with the weight of the crown. The second branch then emerges on the opposite side from the outside of the second bend and so on alternatively to the left and right down the cascade, the length of each branch shortening so that the classical triangular outline is formed with the cascade tip at the inverted head.

Short tufts of foliage along the trunk should be encouraged in places to hide the trunk from view so adding some visual interest as the trunk disappears and reappears into view. The foliage on the classic formal full cascade should be tight and form a classic cloud along the branches, the underside of which should be bare. Branches should also dip slightly to rest in harmony with the falling cascade. In other full cascades the foliage may be sparse and/or shaggy to create a mood of desolation and hardship with a trunk line and crown, or lack thereof, setting the same impression. Here Jins or a Shari could add further impact.

The cascade tip (Apex)

On the formal cascade the end of the tailor tip should flow back in towards the center line of the pot thereby creating the formality and completeness of the tree. The informal cascade apex usually also turns back to the center line but may on occasion sweep dramatically across the full front of the planting if required to add balance and drama.

This leads the eye back to the central line of the planting and so visually rounds things off as it were. However, if the main trunk continually leads the eye to one side and downwards away from the pot, then the tip should follow the same direction and thus would point away from the central line of the planting to give the visual impression of a stream disappearing into the distance.


Again, as in the Han Kengai, the forces of gravity impact on the root structure to create a buttress under the lean and a sloping thick root anchoring the tree into the earth on the opposite side. However, in the full cascade these root formations are not as pronounced. Good root formation should be encouraged and always displayed as it adds power and the illusion of age to the bonsai.


Care should be taken over the size, shape and colour of the pot to be used. These will vary according to the size and style of the cascade. Han Kengai are typically displayed in shallower pots than their full-blooded Kengai cousins are.

The tail of the cascade will help dictate the height of the pot, which typically is tall and U shaped with a taper towards the base. Such pots may be round, square, rectangular or hexagonal. The colour of the pot should be determined according to the mood of the cascade and the colour of the foliage or flowers.

The height and shape of a cascade pot can sometimes lead to problems as water may either not penetrate sufficiently far down to encourage deeper rooting or may sit in the bottom section due to poor drainage and be a danger for root rot. F or these reasons it is recommended that the bottom third of the soil mix should be courser to allow excess water to drain properly.

When planting a cascade into its pot take care not to position it off-centre towards the fall side of the cascade as this can create the impression of the cascade falling over. The roots should emerge either in the centre of the pot or slightly offset away from the cascade side.

Usually the tip of the full cascade is below the base line of the pot. Ideally the pot should be placed on a tall slender stand to add the visual impact of height to the fall of the cascade, but the stand should not be the same height as the pot or the cascade, preferably taller than either of them. For a more rugged creation though, consider using a different material for the stand such as an appropriate rock with a pot to complement it.

To complete a display in a tokonama, a narrow hanging scroll depicting mountains and a waterfall could be added, perhaps with one or two strategically placed stones on a bamboo mat off-set at the base of the display to create the impression of the bottom of the cliff.

Cascades can be both challenging and rewarding. Try one!