Donor and University of Michigan alumnus Melvyn Goldstein’s gift of his entire collection of bonsai—together with funds to help care for the collection—will elevate the bonsai and penjing collection at Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum to national prominence.

By Joe Mooney

Three bonsai—a Korean hornbeam, a Japanese black pine, and a narrow-leaf Ficus—arrived to great excitement at Matthaei this fall. The trees are just a fraction of Melvyn Goldstein’s large assemblage of bonsai and the first wave of his collection, which he plans to donate in its entirety over the next few years. Goldstein is also donating funds for the care and maintenance of the collection, which represents his lifetime dedication to acquiring, stewarding, and refining
the plants—nearly 110 in all.

A satsuki azalea on display at Matthaei in the spring of 2015.
Melvyn Goldstein has several of these azaleas in his collection, and a
display of the satsuki is planned for May 2016. All of Goldstein’s
satsuki azaleas will be included in his gift to us.

The Korean hornbeam that arrived at Matthaei as part of the
first wave of bonsai in the fall of 2015.

A Japanese white pine in Melvyn Goldstein’s collection.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of this gift. According to respected bonsai educator and lecturer Jack Wikle, acquiring these bonsai has the potential for making Matthaei’s display one of the top public collections of bonsai in the United States.

Among bonsai artists, Goldstein’s private collection is recognized as one of the finest in the United States. William Valavanis, who has studied in Japan and apprenticed with Japanese bonsai masters for 30 years, wrote after a recent “bonsai road trip” that included a stop at Goldstein’s Ohio home, “I’ve seen [his] fine bonsai for years at the US National Bonsai Exhibition but was not prepared to see the vast number of beautiful, well-cared-for [bonsai] so well displayed in his garden.”

A U-M alumnus and Tibetan scholar at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Goldstein began his journey with bonsai nearly 50 years ago. In part his association with us rekindled feelings about his time at U-M. It was also time to think about who would take care of a collection that’s been decades in the making, says Goldstein, who is in his 70s. “I’m at a point in my life where it makes sense for me to turn over the care of my bonsai to others,” he says. “I’m excited about this collaboration as it gives me great satisfaction to be able to combine helping my alma mater, fostering knowledge and appreciation of the bonsai art form I love, and also knowing I have a wonderful home for my trees.” Goldstein adds that his Japanese azalea teacher always emphasized that we don’t own trees. Rather “we are just ‘leasing’ them until we pass them on to others who will continue looking after them. I truly believe this!”

Melvyn Goldstein riding a yak in Tibet. Goldstein’s
interest in bonsai started when he went to conduct
research in Tibet via Beijing, where he first encountered
beautiful Chinese bonsai up close and decided he had
to learn the art. During his research 
among a group
of high-altitude pastoral nomads in Tibet it was often
necessary to 
travel by horse or yak between the dispersed
 Goldstein’s research is discussed in an article he
wrote with his colleague Dr. Cynthia Beall 
in the June 1989
issue of National Geographic Magazine
titled, “The Remote
World of Tibet’s Nomads.”

Bonsai is a patient art and a long-time practice. Like their full-size cousins, bonsai often exist on a time scale beyond a single human life. The best trees may take decades to reach an apogee of refinement and even then, as living works of art they constantly change. The sheer number of plants that will find their way into our collection is only part of the story. It’s also the quality of the plants that will make our collection great—especially with Goldstein’s gift in place. “Dr. Goldstein’s trees are by far some of the best bonsai I’ve had the privilege of viewing anywhere in the world,” says Tennessee native Bjorn Bjorholm, a rising star in the bonsai world. “He has managed to single-handedly improve the quality of bonsai art in the United States.”

Caring for Bonsai—a Long-Term Commitment
The Plant Collections Network at the American Public Gardens Association describes Matthaei-Nichols as “among a prestigious group of gardens and arboreta that have committed themselves to the conservation and care of specific plant collections curated at the highest professional level.”

A recent portrait of Melvyn Goldstein.

Building sufficient endowments for the care and upkeep of our gardens and collections is a top campaign goal. We need your help to ensure their future by making a donation to the garden endowment fund.

Donations can be made using the enclosed envelope; online at, or by contacting our Director of Development Gayle Steiner:; 734.647.7847.

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