What Do We Call The Top Of A Bonsai?

The top?





And more importantly—does it matter?


The Japanese call the top of a bonsai the “atama”, which is head. As an apprentice, light bulbs went off when I heard them calling the top the head.

Decades before I’d been taught it was the “apex”. Oxford Dictionaries defines apex as: “The top or highest part of something, especially one forming a point”.

I suppose I may have been too literal but for years my bonsai had pointy tops. Always looking for the next leader on young bonsai. Never going for rounded.

A head is rounded. What we want our mature bonsai to have. Many small shoots filling out a rounded tree head—even if that head is very small, like on a thin-trunked bonsai.

Now I wonder about the power of words, of semantics. Does it matter?

It may.

”Top” lacks analogy that could give it relatability. It’s a bit vague.

”Apex” may have use with pre-bonsai when we’re swapping out leaders to create movement and taper.

“Crown” might be a pretty good word for the top of a mature bonsai, as a crown goes on a rounded head. It gives an image to wrap our minds around. But the image above claims the crown as the back of the head, which muddies things.

“Canopy” sounds good, too. But on looking up the definition—“the branches and leaves that spread out at the tops of trees in the woods”—the canopy is high, but it’s also vague. A canopy would include the tops of other trees, if in a forest.

If a mature, rounded top of foliage is desired, “apex”, “top”, and “canopy” maybe not the best words, with “crown” maybe most accurate. “Head” feels awkward, as it includes jaw, cheek, and nose—but then, given the  complexity of micro-views through the foliage of a mature bonsai, it’s actually not a bad option.

My favorite may still be crown, if naming the outer extremity of the rounded top of the bonsai is what we’re after. I like that it it’s not a vague term and has relatability (which helps me remember it). But I suspect our personal preferences and how we infer these definitions all matter.

Please chime in with your favorites!

Bulletin Board September 2023

  • For more about bonsai semantics and other puzzles, check out Bonsai Heresy: 56 Myths Exposed Using Science and Tradition, now on sale on Stone Lantern.
  • For those following the Indiegogo campaign to source binoculars for young birding guides in Ecuador, we’ve some news. The leader of the team down there, Yacu, set up a bird count day with their new binoculars. Just in the morning they saw 80 species. Thanks everyone for contributing to the campaign! It was a big success. Here are some photos of their first day out with the binoculars:98f374fd-dd88-4ab9-bbdf-7c326efe7f30
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    • They saw this brilliant orange bird, the Andean Cock of the Rock, on their opener day. I saw this very shy bird several times in my adventures through the cloud forests of Ecuador this past January. The virtual birding guide eBird says, “Found in cloud forest at middle elevations, most often at a dawn display site where males make piglike squeals and jump and dance for females.” Who says birding is boring.

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  1. John DeMaegd says:

    I thought there were several answers to the top of a Bonsai, starting with rounded for decidous, and pointed top of a triangle for conifers. This is obviously a basic starting point that never follows rules, but is a start. Then as we know all rules are basic starting points for design, and then we deal with what our plants give us to work with.

  2. corkelm says:

    I like ‘apex’… consider, we call trees that tend to grow stronger at the top ‘apical’. If we change to ‘crown’ would we call trees that grow stronger at the top ‘crownical’?

  3. kathyjcs says:

    Hi Michael, always enjoy your musings! This one is particularly fun, when one understands how bonsai has evolved over the years, and how we might design our trees in more recent years. I tend to lean toward “botanical” definitions and use Dirr for my go to. He defines apex as; “the tip, or terminal end”, apical as; “describes the apex or tip”, and apiculate; as “ending abruptly in a short-pointed tip”. When discussing “growth dominance” and “hormone rich areas”, I think apex can be quite useful. Dirr defines crown as “the upper mass or head of a tree, (also a central point near the ground level of a perennial herb from which new shoots arise each year).” So, apex, when put into a growth context, can be very helpful and crown might be best when we emphasize the aesthetic we hope to achieve. It’s all fun! Cheers!

    • crataegus says:

      Thanks for the comment! This is really interesting! I do think what we name something has significance. That it can change how we see it and how we create it.

  4. Graham says:

    With my forestry background we used crown, and crown classes to describe the position of an individual tree within a forest canopy.
    So if the Bonsai doesn’t have a live crown/Apex but it has a dead top (as many of the ancient trees in a forest do), then perhaps apex?

  5. Joseph McCoy says:

    I like Apex personally, but going with the Head idea, it could be the “Hat” as this always sits on top of the head.

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