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The branches

Great principles

In a bonsai the two most significant areas are the roots and the trunk. But what about the branches, or eda as they called in Japanese? In a branch setting it can be quite perplexing as to which branches should remain and which are to be removed.

The branches of a bonsai are not positioned randomly. Here’s the general rule to follow:
Build the structure of a bonsai by laying out its branches beginning with three principal branches. These are the first branch, the second and the third. One of them — the second or the third — will be placed at the rear. Remember that, as a beginner, this is an obligatory rule to apply. Never forget the three basic branches, and always make sure that one of them is the back branch. Study the diagrams carefully and you will understand.


The ideal conical trunk: its branches are thinner and therefore in proportion to it.
They are directed towards the lower part of the tree, and with conifers, their exit angle must be less than 90 degrees.

Deciduous trees

Ideally the place where a
branch emerges is at a
curve of the trunk.

As well with deciduous trees the branches should be thinner than the trunk, 
but here the movement of the branches is less steep and its tips face slightly upward.

Some errors to avoid

Now you understand the general principles relating to the branches, but that is not all. Alas, it is a little more complicated. From the positions of the three main branches the more advanced stages will emerge.

The back branch can be located here (3)

The first branch (1) will be laid out on the right or the left of the viewer who is standing in front of the tree.

Or the back branch can be located here (2)

The second branch (2) that follows the first will be placed on the right side, the left, or at the back.

The first branch (1) will never be placed forwards or at the back

You will build the tree starting from the first three branches from the base.

Measuring from the soil, the first, lower branch is placed at a fifth to a third of the overall length of the trunk. 

If the first branch is placed higher than the authorised

height, you will have to bring it down to give the illusion of

a lower exit from the trunk

Essential branches

The essential branches are those that form the profile of the tree. They also highlight the curves of the trunk. The branches always originate outside the curves from the trunk. They are never one in front of the other. They never cross. They move towards the right or left sides of the trunk and slightly forwards. The stronger and larger the curve of the trunk, the more powerful and large will be the corresponding branch.

Complementary branches

These short branches don’t reach the profile of the tree but will
emerge from among the main branches wherever they can. These modest branches are smaller than the others and balance, fill in, correct the deficiencies and imperfections of the principal branches. It’s necessary to retain them to give a tree a natural appearance, even if that makes them ‘imperfect’.

Essential branch 1 - the main and / or first branch.

Essential branch 2 - the back branch.

Essential branch 3 - the second branch.

Complementary branch 4 - partly hidden.

Complementary branch 5 - counterweight branch.

Complementary branch 6 -tertiary branch.

Japanese terminology

Learn the principal Japanese terms used in bonsai. They form the understood international language of bonsai enthusiasts all over
the world. It is not affectation.

Kiki-eda: First branch. It is this that establishes or increases the character of the tree. Its movement enhances the movement of the trunk

Uke-eda: The second or counterweight branch. It balances the first branch and prevents the tree from falling.

Kuitsuki-eda: A short branch at the front to give the tree depth.

Ushiro-eda: The back branch must be visible from the front and gives depth to the bonsai.

The first branch

When you shape a tree, the main branch should always be defined first. Its role is to underline and explain the movements of the trunk, and its curve is the most significant. It reinforces the movement of the tree and consolidates its balance. Never choose as the main branch one that will contradict a tree’s movement as defined by its nebari, its trunk and its apex. Never choose a small badly placed branch or one that is ugly.

The place at which the main branch emerges from the trunk is a function of the style of the tree — in moyogi, a third of the height, of the trunk, or in chokkan, a fifth of the height of the trunk.

The more interesting the trunk, the more you’ll need to expose it in order to see it. The slope and the shape of this branch will be used as an example for other branches. The tip of this branch will become one of the angles at the base of the imaginary triangle that is used as the profile of the tree. When we have the apex and the main branch we have achieved one side and two angles of the triangle.

The first branch

Working from the base of the trunk upwards, the first branch is the first starting point. It can be the main branch, but it is not always the case.
In the formal upright tree on the right (chokkan) the trunk is not so interesting, therefore you can start the first branch low down — about a fifth of the height of the tree.

Once the apex and the essential branch has been determined, 
we have a side of the triangle.

Main / first branch
Essential branch
Secondary branch

In order to see the curve of the trunk, the main branch of a moyogi will start between a third and half the height of the tree, starting from the soil.

Anything that exceeds the imaginary line of the triangle,
can be pruned away.

Main / first branch
Essential branch

This right-hand trunk is hardly interesting. So the main branch of this chokkan style tree will start between a fifth and a third of its total height — definitely the lower position in certain case.

The higher the branch starts the more of the trunk is seen. Lower down, and more of the trunk is masked. In the informal upright style on the left (moyogi), the movement of the trunk is an essential element of the tree. So this first branch will start higher — at about a third of the total height of the tree.

Angle of exit

Several cases are to be considered. For conifers, the angle remains almost constant. It is acute and the branch is directed towards base. However, it is necessary to take account of the style of the tree and its age. For leafy trees in the chokkan style, the angle is of approximately 90 degrees — that is,. the branches are horizontal. The branches of conifers can be graduated — almost horizontal at top and with an acute angle at the base. In the case of trees in the style of moyogi, there must be an agreement between the movement of the trunk and that of the branch. The angle of exit will be like the branch and go down gently while following the movement from the trunk.

Back branches

Seen from the front

If a back branch is located at the same level as the left or essential branch.....

Seen from above

....then point the back branch away from the viewer.

Seen from the front

If a back branch is located between two essential branches.....

Seen from above

...bring it more towards the viewer or front.

Complementary and counterweight branches

The counterweight branch balances the main / first branch. Although smaller, its power and weight connect with those of the main / first branch and with the curve of the trunk. It is helped in its role by the other branches.

The triangle of the crown is defined by the apex, the main/first branch and the counterweight branch.

Main / first branch
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Counterweight branch
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Complementary branch
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Complementary branch
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Balance between the branches

Branches on the outer curves of the trunk promote balance and emphasize movement.
If the branches on both sides are identical in shape, the trunk will show little movement.
The trunk leans towards the side with the heavier branches. The massive root base strengthens the balance of the composition.

Summary on the position of the branches:

  • The first branch starts at approximately a third of the total height of the trunk.

  • The first back branch gives the bonsai its depth. It is obligatory.

  • The trunk is free of branches at the front, for least two-thirds of its height.

  • The first two side branches form between them an angle of 
    approximately 120 degrees. See illustration.

  • The tree should embrase you.

© 2024 All Rights Reserved Bonsai Europe

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Publication dates

English language edition 2024Publication Dates
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2024-1 #186 | #209- January /FebruaryJan. 1, 2024Jan. 15Jan. 22
2024-2 #187 | #210- March / AprilMar. 4Mar. 18Mar. 25
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