When you first get exposed to bonsai, there is an intimidating jargon to delve into –with Latin names, nuanced Japanese terms, and dense horticultural descriptions. In terms of bonsai design, two very fundamental categorizations are masculine or feminine styles.
Beyond just describing design, the concepts of masculine and feminine in bonsai can provide frameworks from which to make decisions on how to best maximize the inherent qualities of any tree. These frameworks can guide your thought process in approaching a tree, something to objectively base decisions that supersede your personal design biases. As the idea of what makes good bonsai design can be nebulous, starting with identifying whether the tree is more masculine or feminine can make the overall design process feel less overwhelming.
When you come to observe a piece of bonsai material, you should begin by identifying the primary line—examine the trunk. This is the starting point for all bonsai design, the anchor from which the rest of the composition evolves. Characteristics in the trunk will often tell you whether a tree leans more masculine or feminine in its design potential.
"Identifying whether the tree is more masculine or feminine can make the overall design process feel less overwhelming."
Bonsai design in its most basic is a game of proportional balance from every aspect of the tree—the branching, foliage, ceramic container—in comparison to the trunk. When a tree is shorter, the trunk appears wider. And likewise when a tree is taller, the trunk appears more slender. When you have a masculine tree, the framework for design is all about compaction. With a feminine tree, you should be looking to elongate.
If the trunk is very thick, showcasing angular, sharp movement—this would be considered masculine. With a masculine style tree, you want to accentuate the thick trunk, so you shorten the design, and build a wide silhouette. This creates the illusion of a thick, old tree in miniature.
"Bonsai design in its most basic is a game of proportional balance from every aspect of the tree—the branching, foliage, ceramic container—in comparison to the trunk."
With the secondary branching, you create wider, more unified pads that carry more weight per branch. The tertiary branching of masculine trees should have a denser needle mass, with more ramification. Masculine trees have the sturdiness and weight to support such thick, powerful design sentiments.
At the opposite side of the spectrum are the feminine trees, with a thinner trunks and soft, curvaceous movement. For a tree with feminine characteristics, the overall plan for the design should be elongation. This means creating a narrower structural silhouette, laying thinner pads that are more divided across branching, and leaving sparser foliage to emphasize the overall lightness of the tree.
Of course, there are trees that fall in the middle. Sometimes you get a thin trunk with angular movement or vis versa. Trees will exhibit both masculine and feminine characteristics and it’s up to you, as the creator of the design to prioritize the most valuable aspect of the tree.
If you do make a decision to deviate from this framework, it should be justified via referencing the natural environment. If, for example you have a thick, masculine tree but you lay out finer pads, you could be referencing an alpine environment. So the design decisions should always be backed by solid reasoning.
These general design constructs, of compacting masculine trees and elongating feminine trees, provide guardrails for your process. They can free up your bonsai approach so that you are able to take any piece of material and express its full potential. You may have a penchant for robust, masculine trees, and you may try to impose that preference on a tree that would be better served and elevated by its true feminine characteristics.
These frameworks help you approach a tree as it is—what are the best characteristics of this tree? What is the trunk and that primary line calling for? Once you answer this, you have a plan of attack from the structure all the way to tertiary ramification. Working with and developing bonsai is a process of feeling out the value in a piece of material and using techniques to elevate those intrinsic qualities.