390-Year-Old Bonsai Tree That Survived Atomic Bomb on Display in D.C.

Seventy years ago Thursday, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, helping to bring to an end World War II.

While many people are visiting the Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport to see the Enola Gay that carried and dropped the bomb, there is a more peaceful part of that history in Washington D.C. worth visiting.

In northeast Washington at the U.S. National Arboretum there is a special, 390-year-old bonsai tree. It is the oldest bonsai tree in the arboretum’s exhibit of many bonsai trees. The arboretum is part of the U.S. Agriculture Department, but the bonsai exhibit is largely funded by the National Bonsai Foundation.

But, of course, the story is not just how old the tree is or who cares for it.

The 390-year-old tree is unique because it actually was just two miles from the atomic blast and survived. And there’s even more to this remarkable story.

It arrived in 1975 when several bonsai trees had been donated from Japan to the United States in preparation for the bicentennial in 1976. The trees were crated up and shipped to America and the arboretum.

It wasn’t until 2001 that officials at the arboretum learned that their tree had survived the atomic blast. Two nephews of the man who had given the tree visited in 2001 and revealed the remarkable story about its survival.

The tree now sits in a place of honor at the arboretum.

Assistant curator Michael James is among the staff that tends to daily watering and maintenance of tree leaves and branches, sometimes turning the tree on its turntable to get better sunlight.

“It’s an amazing feat that it was started 390 years ago,” he told News4. “Generations and generations have cared for it, and it is still alive and healthy today.”

Steve Hayes, who lives nearby, went for a visit Thursday. He was born in 1982 and respects the tie between the atomic blast and the life of the bonsai.

“It feels pretty magical to be here,” he said. “And a good reminder of something that was terrible.”

The National Bonsai Foundation has financed much of the caring for the trees since the 1970s. All told, it has spent about $75 million on new buildings, maintenance, plants and staff. Right now, it’s financing a new, $5 million Japanese pavilion that will house the bonsai exhibit.

Foundation Executive Director Johann Klodzen was on hand Thursday to explain how the Japanese owner of the tree had given it despite the terrible war. She said the tree holds a message for everyone.

“I hope that future generations, and other people who come after us, stand in front of the tree and feel that same aura of forgiveness and hope, hope for the future,” she said.

The arboretum on Bladensburg Road NE is open seven days a week. You might take a look.

And the foundation wants you to know one more thing: The proper pronunciation of bonsai is “bone-sai,” like the bone in your arm.

It is not “bon-sai.”

You can’t say you haven’t been told.

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