The Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum bonsai collection began with a gift from the estate of Dr. Maurice Seevers in 1977. Today, the collection numbers more than 60 and visitors can now enjoy the outdoor Bonsai and Penjing Garden at Matthaei, which opened in 2013.  Each summer, one lucky intern has the opportunity to work with Collections and Natural Areas Specialist Carmen Leskoviansky to care for and maintain the garden and assist in other projects with field services interns. In this post, 2017 intern Pragya Khurana explores her experiences with the bonsai collection.

by Pragya Khurana
A behind-the-scenes view of the Bonsai and Penjing
Garden collection at Matthaei Botanical Gardens.
There’s nothing like walking into the Bonsai & Penjing Garden early in the morning, with the sound of chirping birds echoing through the cool air. The trees sit proudly on their stands, ready to tell their story to the visitors passing through. The garden presents a unique blend of beauty and culture, where each tree holds a different meaning to individual viewers. Though I have only been part of the Matthaei-Nichols team for a little over a month, I’ve already learned so much,especially about bonsai maintenance and their significance. Prior to working at Matthaei, I was familiar with some basics points about bonsai, but had limited knowledge about the styling and narrative aspect of the trees. The Ann Arbor Bonsai Society (AABS) volunteers, who meet weekly at Matthaei to work with the collection, have spent many hours with me, sharing their experiences and giving me tips about bonsai design. Working with such a diverse collection and dedicated staff and volunteers is a privilege for me.
This dwarf Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidataNana’)
on display in the garden was started in 1940 and
has been trained since 1971. To me, this tree conveys
the persistence of plants in the face of nature’s hardships
such as wind and the weight of snow.

Bonsai (pronounced bone-sigh) exists at the intersection of art and horticulture. The artist’s vision for the shape and the tree’s natural growth is what produces such a refined art form. As someone who recently started learning more about this living art, I understand why some people have mixed feelings about it. After reading many articles and learning from the AABS volunteers, I’ve debunked a few of the most common misconceptions:
  • Bonsai has always been part of the Japanese culture
Although bonsai has been associated with Japanese culture since the sixth century, it is a continuation of elements found in penjing from China. This is another form of miniature artistically shaped trees and landscapes that significantly predates bonsai.
  • The plants are dwarf varieties
Bonsai are not a specific species of tree. In fact, they can be created from almost any woody plant. Through horticultural techniques such as pruning and confinement to a pot, the plant retains its small shape. The dwarf Japanese yew pictured about is a dwarf variety from which the bonsai was created, but most bonsai are styled from plants that would normally grow into full-sized trees or shrubs.
  • Bonsai are indoor plants
In popular culture bonsai are often shown displayed indoors. However, only certain varieties of trees are meant to live inside yearlong. Most bonsai can be kept outdoors year-round but need to be protected in colder months to keep the roots from becoming too cold and to protect the top of the tree from harsh winds. Individual species or varieties of trees vary, so if  you’re considering starting or purchasing a bonsai plant, make sure you know its temperature parameters.

  • The trees are planted in garden or potting soil
Instead of being planted in typical gardening soil, bonsai are potted in a soilless mixture with little to no organic matter. For our bonsai we use a mix of stone, orchid bark, and Turface (baked clay used on baseball fields), among other materials. This kind of “soil” provides excellent drainage and optimal air space for root development.   
  • Bonsai must be pruned constantly
nearby bird selected this Japanese
trident maple as a place to start its nest,

showing that even the bonsai in the garden
are connected to the ecosystem just as
other plants are.
Depending on the type of woody plant used, it may grow slowly or quickly, or have one or two flushes of growth, so the rate of pruning varies. If you want the branch to be thin and short, one way to achieve this effect is to prune it early. If you want the branch to be thick and long, allow it to keep growing and prune later.
  • Repotting is needed when the tree outgrows its current pot
It’s true that the plant can outgrow its pot, although simply outgrowing its pot is not always a reason for repotting. Every three to five years (depending on the species) repotting is usually necessary to keep the plant healthy . The tree is removed from the pot, the roots are raked out, and about a third to a half of the root mass is removed. This can be used as a horticultural technique to keep the tree small, but more so is used to keep the tree healthy. It is also common for a tree to be replanted in the same pot.
  • Pruning and wiring is torture for the trees
Some people see bonsai and the techniques used to grow them as tampering with nature. A popular counterargument I’ve heard from some bonsai enthusiasts is “Are we not being cruel to nature when we mow our lawns?” Bonsai trees are not being starved or deprived of nutrients. I would argue that they’re the most pampered plants in the gardens, with careful watering and maintenance on a daily basis. The artist may have a vision in mind, but the plant itself ultimately decides what form to take.
At the end of the day, not everyone agrees with the function of bonsai in the environment and art, but these different perspectives do start a conversation. To me, bonsai is a form of self-expression. Bonsai recreate nature in miniature, just like a painting may recreate a scene or some other reality in  two dimensions. Unlike other forms of art, a bonsai tree is never truly finished. When we shape these trees, it’s as if we care for them until it’s time to pass them on for someone else to add their own artistic touch to the piece.
The unique stylings of bonsai urge us to pause and reflect, something that we don’t always do for the plants we see all around us every day. I encourage everyone to visit a bonsai garden or even seek out a single bonsai plant and imagine what story each tree wants to convey. The bonsai journey is continuous, and I am so grateful for this immersive learning opportunity.
Pragya Khurana
Pragya Khurana, from Grand Blanc, Michigan, is entering her senior year majoring in cell and molecular biology. She will be working as the Bonsai Garden intern and is excited to learn more about botany this summer. She loves taking care of her house plants, listening to music, and going to concerts. Pragya’s internship is supported by the Jerry and Rhona Meislik Bonsai Fund and by gifts from Dr. Melvyn Goldstein.