Rock Clinging Style (Ishizuke)

rock-clinging-bonsaiVery early in Chinese history, mountains were thought to be inhabited by wise men and deities. Therefore, the mountains were worshipped and revered by them. Rocks are seen to represent mountains or parts thereof and have great symbolic meaning. Rocks and mountains are almost always featured in Oriental art, garden design, literature, and religion. Without rocks, any artistic representation is thought to be lacking the potency and magnificence which is associated with mountains. With time, as with most Oriental arts which originated in China, this love of mountains and rocks spread to Japan where it evolved in new and innovative ways.

Ishizuke describes a natural scene formed by a combination of a tree and a rock, where the tree is clinging to the rock. The natural occurrence of a seed landing, germinating and growing, albeit with great difficulty, in an inhospitable environment and that is what this style tries to portray. This style also attempts to replicate the feeling and effect of some dramatic rock landscapes found in nature. This may be a mountain, ravine, cliff or a rocky island or shoreline.

You may use any species, combination of species or number of trees for the rock clinging style. However, a single tree on a rock is always an enchanting sight. If you decide to do a group or multiple planting, follow the same rules as for a forest, raft sprout or double-trunk style. Bear in mind the logic of a natural scene, especially with regard to the environment and the growing conditions required by each species, when you do a planting with a combination of species. For example, when you use conifers and deciduous trees simultaneously, place the conifers on the upper part of the rock and the deciduous trees on the lower areas. Plant azaleas, ferns and grasses at the base of the rock.

Tree preparation

Sometimes you need long roots to train them to hug the contours of the rock, especially when you are using a tall or large rock.

To obtain these long roots, make a deep box with thin wood laths, by nailing them together. Plant the tree in a sandy soil mixture in the box and left to grow for one year. Every 12-16 weeks, remove a layer of slats to gradually expose more of the roots. The removal of the slats causes the roots to elongate.

Tree selection

The trees, which you select, are very important to the natural appearance of your planting. Maintain the natural perspective between rock and trees according to the effect you are trying to portray.

So give careful attention to the proportion of the tree/s to the rock else the result will look contrived. The problem is that, when you look at a landscape, the trees are usually small in comparison to the rock, and this is difficult to replicate. For example, a 90-metre cliff will have trees of about 3-5 metres.

So when you scale this down to a rock 40-50cm high, we should be using trees that are 5-7.5cm high.

We know that most trees this size have very little definition and the temptation is to use bigger trees.

It is easier to keep the trees alive if you choose varieties that have compact, fibrous root systems. Rock plantings dry out more easily than conventional plantings, so pass up the moisture-loving species.

Selecting a rock

Choosing a suitable rock is important, and there are number of preferences to bear in mind. Rocks are either tall or flat. Tall rocks are mostly displayed in a flat container without drainage holes, called a suiban. Flat rocks replace the container and are used mostly for root-over-rock styles.

When you use a tall rock, the rock becomes the feature of the planting and should exhibit certain characteristics. It should, for example, have enough interest to stand alone with at least one indentation or saddle for planting. The base should be flat or at least be made flat so that it may stand without support.

Choose a strong rock with a rough texture. Darker coloured rocks are preferable to lighter coloured ones. Avoid rocks with fresh breaks or which have jagged edges. Symmetrical rocks are best left alone, because each should have six distinct planes - top, bottom, front, back, left and right with each surface having its elements of interest. Some rocks have a natural saddle, which make an excellent planting site.

If you choose to portray a rugged landscape, select a rock that has many fissures and a craggy texture. For a distant view of an island you may use a smoother rock.


There must be harmony between the tree and rock, that is, the style of the tree and the shape of the rock must have artistic harmony and it must be natural.

Some examples are: -

  1. The direction of the tree and the formation of the rock, its shape and grain, should conform. A leaning style tree should balance the rock formation.
  2. A windswept style should be situated on top of the rock, as in nature this would receive the most wind.
  3. A cascading tree should have its base placed midway or higher up on the rock, and never at its base.

Creating a rock-clinging style bonsai

  • Mix clay and shredded sphagnum moss in equal proportions and add water to make a soft dough, called "muck". Do this well before you start the planting.
  • Select a suitable rock and dunk it in water.
  • Study the rock meticulously so that you can set the front for the rock and the tree.
  • Select the planting site on the rock carefully. The roots can be secured in two ways:-
    • You may attach wire ties to the rock surface, where the roots will be placed, with an epoxy glue, or drill holes in the rock surface, thread the wire through small lead sinkers and force the sinkers and wire into the holes to secure the ties.
  • Prune and wire the tree into shape.
  • Spread a thin layer of wet clay over the planting area.
  • Remove all the soil from the roots and examine how these roots will be fixed to the rock.
  • Remove the small roots at the base of the trunk.
  • Divide the roots in separate directions, that is, to the left, right, back and front of the rock.
  • Put the tree in place and tie the roots down firmly. Protect the roots, where the ties cross the roots, with small patches of rubber or leather.
  • Make sure that the roots follow the contours and natural crevices of the rock.
  • Cover the roots with a layer of "muck", place some of your regular bonsai soil in a container and place the whole planting on the soil in the container.
  • You may wish to cover the roots, muck, and rock with a piece of cheesecloth or sphagnum moss. This prevents the soil from being washed away when watering.
  • Tie the planting securely into the temporary container and bury the whole planting in a container deep enough to cover the base of the tree.
  • Allow the top to develop unhindered until you get the trunk and root development you want.
  • Constantly prune the tree into shape and gradually allow the soil to be washed away to expose the roots.
  • If the ties start cutting into the roots, remove them immediately.