Centuries-old bonsai that survived atomic bomb gets honored 70 years later

Photo courtesy of U.S. National Arboretum

The 390-year-old bonsai was honored at a ceremony Thursday. Photo courtesy of U.S. National Arboretum

At 390 years old, the Japanese white pine was already notable as the oldest specimen in the bonsai collection at Washington, D.C.’s National Arboretum. Then, in 2001, two brothers showed up at the Arboretum to check on the tree – a donation from their grandfather — and informed officials that it was far more special than anyone had originally realized. Not only had the tree lived through almost four centuries, it had also lived through the atomic bomb in Hiroshima.

The Washington Post reported that the tree was originally donated to the Arboretum by a bonsai master named Masaru Yamaki. It was part of a gift of 53 trees given to the Arboretum’s National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in honor of the U.S. bicentennial. No mention was made of the tree’s history, and it wasn’t until the brothers showed up that the tree’s incredible story was even known. The tree’s history will be honored on Thursday, the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing.

The tree was originally located in a walled nursery belonging to Yamaki that was less than two miles from Hiroshima. This distance, however, was just far enough away to shield it from the blast. Jack Sustic, curator of the Bonsai and Penjing Museum, told the Post that the tree must have been against a wall where it was shielded from the blast. Photographs taken at the Yamaki Nursery just after the bombing show the pine standing in its pot, unharmed.

Survival seems to come naturally to the tree. In general, white pines are expected to live around 200 years, meaning that this one has lived almost double its life-expectancy. Caring for such an old specimen is no easy task. At the Arboretum, the tree needs to be watered daily, inspected for insects, rotated twice a week and occasionally repotted. In the winter, the tree is moved to the Chinese Pavilion, which is climate-controlled.

This year the tree will move to the Japanese Pavilion, which is being renovated in honor of the Arboretum’s upcoming 40th anniversary. It will be just one more small change for a tree that has been around since 1625.