In training since 1625: How a 390-year-old bonsai tree survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima

Bonsai history is honored this week at the Washington National Arboretum, as Thursday marks the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing

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Moses Weisberg was riding his bike through the National Arboretum in northeast Washington when he stopped in front of a mushroom-shaped tree. The first thing he noticed was the thickness of the trunk, estimated to be nearly a foot and a half in diameter. And then there was the abundance of slender leaves, healthy hair for a 390-year-old botanical relic.

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But it wasn’t until he learned the whole story of the tree, a Japanese white pine donated in 1976, that he was truly stunned. The tree, which is part of the Arboretum’s National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, has not only survived the perils of age to become the oldest in the collection; he survived the explosion of an atomic bomb, Little Boy, dropped on Hiroshima, Japan during World War II.

“On the one hand, it’s amazing to think that something could have survived an atomic explosion,” said Weisberg, a 26-year-old student at Georgetown University Law Center. “And then, by chance, a Japanese tree from the 1600s ended up here.”

The history of bonsai is in the spotlight this week, as Thursday marks the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. But visitors can view the tree as part of the museum’s permanent collection throughout the year.

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AP Photo / Jacquelyn Martin
AP Photo / Jacquelyn Martin

The tree, donated by a bonsai master named Masaru Yamaki, was part of a gift of 53 specimens to the United States for its bicentennial in 1976. Little was known about the tree until March 8, 2001, when – without notice – two brothers visiting from Japan showed up at the museum to check out their grandfather’s tree.

“I find it incredible that Masaru Yamaki could give invaluable bonsai to his enemy and not say a word about it,” said Felix Laughlin, president of the nonprofit National Bonsai Foundation. “I get emotional just talking about it. “

Shigeru Yamaki and his brother, Akira, filled in the blanks for museum officials, although they had never seen the tree before their visit and only heard about it through family stories. News footage taken at the Yamaki Nursery after the explosion shows the unscathed pine in the background.

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Ensuring the continued survival of such an important piece in the collection is no easy task. It was Jack Sustic, who since 2002 has been the curator of the Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the National Arboretum.

AP Photo / US Army via Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
AP Photo / US Army via Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

Bonsai, Sustic said, does not refer to the type of tree but rather how it is maintained. It’s the mix of nature and art, he said.

Care includes making sure it is watered daily, inspected for insects, turned for the sun twice a week, and repotted occasionally.

In winter, the tree is moved to the air-conditioned Chinese pavilion in the museum. Currently, it is located in the courtyard of the museum.

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NP Graphics
NP Graphics

“One of the things that makes it so special is, if you imagine, that someone has taken care of this tree every day since 1625,” Sustic said. “I always like to say that bonsai is like a verb. It’s not a name, it’s doing.

He joked that tending to a century-old tree every day can be enough pressure to keep it awake at night. Unlike other museum pieces, there is no recourse when a plant dies.

“I have a full suitcase at home,” he said. “There are a few trees here that are just kind of ‘Where’s Charlie’ if something is going on.”

The tranquility of the arboretum is a far cry from the fury of Hiroshima decades ago.

On August 6, 1945, a 9,700-pound bomb exploded over the city at 8:15 a.m. A fortified Yamaki-owned nursery was within two miles of the bomb site, but the ancient tree, Sustic said, was just far enough away to survive.

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“Location, location, location,” Sustic said, explaining the tree’s survival. “It was against a wall. It must have been the wall that protected him from the explosion.

All family members inside the house also survived the blast. He blew up all the windows, leaving everyone inside cut out of flying glass, but no one suffered permanent injuries, according to the museum.

Someone has been taking care of this tree every day since 1625

White pine has long exceeded its lifespan and has spent about a tenth of its life in Washington.

“I’m reluctant to watch because I don’t want him to say 200 years,” Sustic said of the tree’s maximum life expectancy.

In 2016, museum officials said the bonsai will have a new home in the Japanese pavilion, which is being renovated in honor of its upcoming 40th anniversary.

The tree will carry the same sign that every day arouses the wonder of passers-by: “In training since 1625.

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