One of the more unusual bonsai styles is neagari. A Japanese word for exposed root sometimes called octopus-style bonsai.
This style is very different from most traditional bonsai shapes regarding the roots. On most bonsai, the nebari is important (the roots’ spread at the tree’s base.)
As shown above, this unusual bonsai can be combined with other styles. In this case – cascade.
Since bonsai imitates nature in many ways, you may ask, how would this happen in the landscape?
Floods, mudslides, and avalanches often wash away the soil from the base of trees. Eventually, the roots are exposed. In tropical climates, “aerial roots” can sometimes create “legs” to support trees such as Ficus.
Creating Neagari Styled Bonsai
The following graphic is borrowed from the Chile Bonsai Society.
This is the traditional bonsai way to obtain the long roots. It is still a perfect way to create a neagari. After planting and being allowed to grow, the top boards are removed, and the newly exposed roots begin to harden. Then continue to remove boards as time goes on.
Shown here is an imported Chinese elm. When it first arrived from China, it had many more exposed roots. Over time, they were gradually removed.
Less traditional bonsai techniques are also used.
John Callaway uses clear plastic bottles (soda, water, etc.) and cuts off top and bottom. He places this “tube” partially in a container of soil, then fills the tube with bonsai soil. John plants cuttings and/or starter plants in the top of the “tube” and lets them grow.
Each repotting exposes more of the root system until the overall appearance looks acceptable and pleasing to the eye.
Another way to create Neagari is by removing rock from Bonsai that is root-over-rock to reveal roots with stilts. This phenomenon can be seen in nature when trees grow on river banks, where the river has eroded enough soil beneath them that it exposes their roots.
No matter your method, it will likely take years to have a good example of the neagari-style bonsai. Be patient and create other styles while you’re waiting.
Neagari Style Rules
Each of these trees will have a very different look. It will be important for the roots to be sturdy enough to hold the tree up. The roots should also be substantial enough to look like multiple trunks.
With neagari, roots are supposed to extend from one-half up to two-thirds of the tree’s height. In the final design, the trunks should appear in odd numbers.
It’s best to wait until the tree has somewhat matured before removing those roots unnecessary for styling.
Neagari style shows the roots of the tree as extensions of their trunk. They give the appearance of old trees with roots exposed to wind and rain.
The roots can reach as far as one-half of the tree’s total height in Neagari style. To show elegance, it is best to remove any roots that cross the tree.
This will allow the eye to move freely with the tree from the top to the bottom without distractions. It all depends on the species and the growing conditions. You may need to remove a few inches of soil every so often to encourage roots to grow bark and harden off.
In addition to the above ‘in the box’ technique, some neagari grow naturally with exposed roots.
An experienced bonsai artist can often make it look natural, so it’s often hard to tell which is which.
Occasionally, you will find a plant where roots naturally tend to form this way. Severinia buxifolia is one of those species. Related to Citrus, its common name is Box Orange or Boxthorn, which has thorns.
Downsides of Neagari
Sometimes the roots become unwieldy. It is possible to remove soil slowly, but a lot of roots will become thicker over time.
This will make it difficult to graft or thicken roots consistent with the tree’s image.
It is more difficult with trees collected from granite slabs or sandstone, which contain many small feeder roots. It is important to be patient when starting exposed root bonsai.