Best Trees for Literati Bonsai Style

Literati bonsai style is not a style in the true sense of the word; it is instead an approach or method. This type of creation attempts to imitate the brush paintings of old Chinese masters. The ones where you see one long, thin brush stroke with a small flourish at the top represent a tree. That is a literati or bunjin bonsai.

These trees are the type you see when a sapling has grown up in the middle of a clump of trees. It has had to grow fast and not waste energy creating branches. It has had to reach for the sky to share the light. This means it has a long, thin trunk and a small brush of foliage. 

The literati style is complicated to define and appears to break many of the basic rules of bonsai, but at all times, the tree must appear elegant and balanced. It has no specific form, but the style is simple and should evoke sympathy in the viewer’s heart for the tree’s trials.

literati bonsai style

What Trees Are Best for Literati Bonsai Style Creations

These creations rely on long, thin, interesting trunks with several curves. Many trees grow this way naturally. Mature Scots Pines have this type of trunk, but any conifer will adapt to this style if you find the correct rootstock. 

Junipers have great elasticity, making excellent literati subjects like pines and Chinese Elm.

Deciduous trees such as the hawthorn and flowering cherry will also make excellent literati specimens, but generally, deciduous plants are not great literati subjects. The branches and foliage do not lend themselves to this style, but that is not to say you won’t find a specimen that will make an excellent literati creation.

Read more about the Literati bonsai style here!

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This is a loose style where rules can be broken, so almost any tree will make a suitable subject. The shape of the trunk and sparse foliage are essential, so if you have a gangly specimen you are thinking of planting in the garden, take a close look and see if it could be shaped into a literati.

literati bonsai style
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Can I Do This?

Literati is an advanced style that relies heavily on the feeling and interpretation of a style rather than some firm rules. For example, a branch that reverses direction and crosses a trunk would be unacceptable in most bonsai styles, but this would be permitted in a literati.

As with most things, it is better to fully understand the rules before you set out to break them. 

To design a literati creation, think elegant, think clean, think slender, think flowing, think minimal. You would want to evoke those sensations when looking at your tree.

The literati specimen can look similar to a semi-cascade, cascade, informal or formal upright, or any other basic style. It can also be expanded to have two trunks, forest planting, or multiple trunks. These are possible, provided you maintain an elegant, thin minimalist approach. The trunk is usually slender with minimal taper, and there should be no branches on the lower two-thirds of the trunk. Also, the foliage should be sparse and minimalistic on any branches.

As the literati style breaks many basic bonsai rules, it is better to properly understand them so that you can identify and exaggerate these elements in trees that lend themselves to the literati approach. Simply finding a long, thin-trunked tree is not enough to consider it a literati!

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Final Thoughts

This unusual style can be exquisite when done well. The long thin trunks, with little to no taper crowned by sparse foliage, have an elegance and character of their own. The excitement of creating a literati bonsai is that you can break the rules and find the exotic elements to create a stunning masterpiece.

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