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Literati Bonsai – Easy Step-by-Step Beginners’ Guide

Herons Bonsai is Britain’s No1. Bonsai centre and Nursery Founded by world-renowned Bonsai expert Peter Chan and his wife Dawn Chan.

Below Peter Shows us how to transform a thick trunk bonsai into a Literati bonsai style tree at his nursery in Surrey.


Literati Bonsai Easy Step-by-Step Beginners Guide

It is the 28th of February, and although we are not quite into spring, in the UK at this time of the year the Blackthorn Prunus has already started producing flowers.

The flowers grow on the wood which the tree produced in the previous year. The Black Thorn Prunus or the ‘Sloe’ as some people call it is a beautiful plant with lovely white flowers. It belongs to the Prunus family.

Also see: Bonsai Trees for Complete Beginners Guide.

Step-by-Step Pictures and Instructions for Splitting the Trunk of Literati Bonsai

Peter Chan Preparing his Literati Bonsai

This was a very tall tree that I have been growing, and for some reason the branches are too high. I’ve never been very happy with it so I’m going to see what I can do with it.

Even though I had more or less given up on this tree, I have always believed there is no such thing as an impossible bonsai.

This is what we would consider a semi-trained tree. In the past, I tried to make it into a broom style bonsai tree but many of the branches didn’t grow properly.

I know I can make it into something more interesting, I dare even say I will be able to get around seven trees from it.

I begin by taking it out of its pot… you will notice it is in a mica pot which we tend to use when training bonsai. This is to make sure the roots continue to grow shallow.

This tree has the makings of a nice literati bonsai, but at the moment it’s too thick and too spindly for my liking.

Getting Two Bonsai Trees Instead of One

I’m going to do something a bit drastic… because the trunk is so thick I’m inclined to split it down the middle so I can get two trees out of it.

I’m going to use my Chinese cleaver to split the tree. I actually use this for chopping duck and chicken in the kitchen too!

(Don’t worry I will thoroughly clean and disinfect it before I take it back into the kitchen). I’m using the cleaver because I don’t think an axe would be as effective.


Using the cleaver alone will not get me anywhere, so I need to assist it with a hammer.


I then use a chisel to split the trunk further.


With the help of the chisel, cleaver and hammer I manage to split it completely.

With the help of the chisel, cleaver and hammer Peter Chan manage to split the trunk completely.

I’m now going to make some jins with these top branches because they look a little bit too straight for my liking. I do this by tearing the wood back with branch clippers.


Working on the Second Bonsai Tree

Moving onto the second tree… I want to make the torn side the front of the bonsai. I can see I don’t like this thick piece at the top so I remove it with branch clippers.

I also want to reduce the thickness of the top. I do this simply by using brute force and branch clippers.


I then add some wire to the trunk to prevent it from splitting any further.


I try a few different sized pots find the most appropriate size for each tree.


The Root as Another Beautiful Literati Bonsai

This really interesting root here would make a beautiful bonsai on its own. Should the tree die that is what I would use to create a new tree. But for the time being I’ll try and preserve this as it is.

I may even put a screw at the back to tighten it up.


The next step in styling this tree will be to fill the pot with soil which I won’t bore you with. Meanwhile, lets take a look at the other tree.

I want it to fit into another mica pot but it has a large root that is sticking out of the pot. I use a good saw to chop it down.


This is one of our more blunt saws which we use for cutting roots.


Using Agricultural Carpentry Tools

As you can see, we don’t use anything sophisticated, these are all what we call agricultural carpentry tools, all of which anyone can get a hold of. 


The saw wasn’t enough to tackle this root on its own so I’ve brought out the chisel and hammer again.


The tree now fits comfortably in the mica pot. Going back to the other tree you will see that the drum pot it has been put in has been filled with soil.

The pot is a little big for the tree however as we let it grow stronger, hopefully more roots will form.


Wiring the Branches 

Back to our first potted tree, the next step in styling it is to wire this branch. I’m doing this to give the tree more character.


I add some more wire to the trunk to provide additional support.


I will need to add some glue to help it heal but I have every faith this tree will be fine as the cambium is well-alive.

This is all I need to do to this tree at the moment.


Going back to our other tree… this one has the majority of its trunk still intact. I have done nothing to it except split it and put it on a slight angle in the pot. It already has all the characteristics of a lovely literati.

For more on bonsai care, see our 6 Steps on How to Take Care of Bonsai Trees.

Wrapping Up Our Lovely Literati Bonsai

If I was to do anything to it at this stage, I could thin the trunk a little bit with some carving and add a Shari onto the front.

This is what literati trees are all about… surviving against all the storms is the true character of the literati.

This exercise is to show you that even if you have a tree with a thick, ugly trunk and you think you can’t do anything with it you can split it and get two very nice trees out of it!


About the Author Ann Katelyn

I'm Ann Katelyn, Creator and Chief Author of Sumo Gardener. Since I was a child I've always been fascinated with plants and gardens, and as an adult this has developed into my most loved hobby. I have dedicated most of my life to gardening and started Sumo Gardener as a way to express my knowledge about gardening with the hope of helping other people's gardens thrive.

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