How big should a bonsai trunk be?

It’s a how-long-is-a-piece-of-string question because the trunk on a bonsai doesn’t exist in isolation, it exists relative to the foliage, nebari and pot. Because trees undergo secondary thickening however, their trunks expand with every year. So, older trees have thicker trunks.

For another post I found this data below. It shows mass rather than volume, but you can see that as trees get older and bigger, their mass skews to the trunk, which ends up being 80%+ of the total mass of the tree. Whereas at the beginning of the tree’s life, on the left hand side of the chart, the leaf mass exceeds the stem mass.

So in general if we want to emulate older trees, our bonsai needs to be weighted towards a fat trunk (and main branches). Note also that the root mass doesn’t go below 20% – the main contribution to mass in a root are the big structural roots which are largest within a metre or so of the trunk. So this gives an indication of how big a nebari should be.

But as mentioned above the trunk exists relative to the canopy so what do we know about the ratio between the two? One measure which is used in forestry is the live crown ratio which is used as an indicator of tree health. The live crown ratio is the vertical length of the foliage as a percentage of the total tree height.ref Some studies have measured crown ratios for different species (usually in managed forests):

  • A stand of coast redwoods: between 30%-50%ref
  • Douglas Fir: in the 80% range for 20y old trees, down to the 40% for 40y old trees and up to 60% range for 450y old trees
  • Turkey oak: between 20%-50%

Also interesting is the crown radius to trunk diameter. A study measured this for 22 different species including both angiosperms and gymnosperms and came up with equations that represent the ‘allometric types’ for each species – that is an equation that describes how a tree’s dimensions change over time.ref For example for common beech (Fagus sylvatica) they found (see table 5) that the following equation could be used to calculate the crown radius given a particular trunk diameter:

ln(crown radius) = 0.0111 + 0.4710 x ln(trunk diameter) ; (note crown radius is in m and trunk diameter in cm)

if we have, for example, a 1m wide trunk, you could calculate the crown radius as follows: 0.0111 + 0.4710 x ln(100) = 2.180 so crown radius = e2.180 = 8.85m – this actually then gives a crown diameter of 2 x 8.85 = 17.8m. So an old beech which has achieved a 1m wide trunk could have a nearly 18m crown diameter – which means the trunk is about 5.5% of the width of the crown.

Because I love a bit of excel, I took the data for the rest of the species to work out the trunk/crown diameter ratio for each of them based on a 1m trunk – and here is the answer:

So for most species a 1m trunk will be between 4% and 10% of the width of the canopy. I couldn’t resist looking up Auracaria cunninghamii to see why it was different – it looks like the canopy habit is quite narrow which increases the trunk/canopy ratio#.

If you have Douglas fir, this study found that “the vertical distribution of branch volume shifted toward the upper-crown with increasing tree age”ref The mechanisms at work include self-pruning, branches dying and falling off and then adventitious branches growing in the spaces. As they included a picture you can see it makes quite an obvious difference to the look of the tree.

That’s just one species though – the shape of old trees is going to be to a certain extent genetically determined so different species will have a different mature look in terms of their shape and branch distribution.

Conventional bonsai wisdom says a tree needs to have good taper in order to look old. This means it is thicker at the bottom than at the top. But tree-ring researcher and dendrologist Valerie Trouet in her book Tree Story says otherwise. She says “once height growth has stopped in an older tree, then the upper part of the stem will start to catch up, it’s girth increasing year after year, and the stem will gradually take on a more columnar, rather than tapered, look….the tree’s limbs also continue to thicken; branches and roots of old trees often are quite sizable.”

What we are trying to achieve with bonsai is small trees which look like mature, large ones in nature. So the size of the trunk, whether it has taper or not, needs to be in proportion with the canopy and the roots, and the branches should start anywhere from the 20% to the 50/60% of the total tree height mark and be in proportion to the trunk as in the table above.

There are more attributes which make a tree look old, to learn more check out this post: Old Trees.