Jack Sustic (left) and Cyril Grum work on a Satsuki azalea bonsai. Spent flowers must be removed soon after blooming. This helps redirect energy back into the azalea plant. Jack is Matthaei-Nichols’ new bonsai specialist. Cyril is a bonsai volunteer at Matthaei-Nichols and a member of the Ann Arbor Bonsai Society.

A Satuski azalea bonsai in bloom and showing different colors of flower on the same plant—something the Satsuki does naturally. The bonsai azalea are from the collection of donor and U-M alumnus Melvyn Goldstein. Read more about Mel below.

Even with no crowds around to witness their delicate flowers, the Satsuki azalea at Matthaei Botanical Gardens still put on a show this spring.
On a recent day in June our new bonsai specialist Jack Sustic was carefully removing spent blossoms on a particularly spectacular—and huge—Satsuki bonsai. Inside its low-slung and shallow pot the azalea’s massive trunk hugged the ground below it with the grip of an ancient tree.
“We’re removing the flowers that have passed and any seed pods,” Sustic explains. “That helps redirect the energy back to the leaves and the plant.”
Satsuki are a kind of azalea native to Japan. Bonsai artists and plant lovers are drawn to Satsuki and captivated by the delicate pink, white, and red blooms—sometimes with all three colors on the same plant—of these woody shrubs.
Satsuki in Japanese refers to the plants’ blooming period, the fifth month of the Asian lunar calendar. The Satsuki azalea at Matthaei usually bloom in early June.
Like the cherry blossoms in Japan, Satsuki mark the time and the season, Sustic points out. “Satsuki are celebrated for their beauty and because the ephemeral flowers represent the fleeting nature of life.”
Bonsai artists love Satsuki for their relative ease and adaptability to being shaped and for their flowers and their ability to be worked into many shapes. A slice of bonsai aficionados dedicate themselves solely to working on Satsuki. In Japan there are nurseries that specialize in growing these azalea for years in the ground until they’re of the right size for sale to collectors and bonsai artists.

Satsuki azalea are prized around the world for their flowers, leaves, and relative ease of training. This Satsuki has an impressive trunk from being grown in a special nursery for years.

Satsuki azalea may show different color blossoms on the same plant, and even different colors on the same flower.

Watch a video featuring our bonsai specialist Jack Sustic working on and talking about Satsuki azalea:

A National-Level Collection from a Michigan Alumnus and Donor
The Satsuki azalea in the Matthaei-Nichols collection come from Melvyn Goldstein. Goldstein is a U-M alumnus and Tibetan scholar at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland who began his journey with bonsai decades ago on field trips to Tibet.
Around 2000 Goldstein became especially enamored of Satsuki azalea after attending a workshop of the Japanese master Tatemori Gondo. “I had already been thinking about specializing in Satsuki azalea. After taking Gondo’s workshop I purchased my first Satsuki.” That tree is now in the Matthaei collection.
For the past several years Goldstein has provided Matthaei-Nichols with Satsuki azalea to display in our “Bonsai in Bloom” program in June. Eventually Goldstein plans to donate his entire collection of bonsai, including Satuski, to Matthaei-Nichols.
New to Matthaei, with Deep Roots in the Art of Bonsai
Jack Sustic took over for bonsai collections specialist Carmen Leskoviansky in May 2021. Carmen is currently in Portland, Ore., for a three-year internship at Michael Hagedorn’s Crataegus Bonsai.
He may be a new staff member here but Sustic’s bonsai roots run deep. From 2002 to 2016 he was the curator of the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.
His interest in bonsai began in the mid 1980s while serving in the military in South Korea. In 1996 Sustic was selected as the first intern at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., and in 2002 was appointed museum curator, retiring in November of 2016.
Sustic is a member of several bonsai and viewing stone organizations and he’s an honorary member of Nanpu Kai, a study group comprised of bonsai master John Naka’s students.  Currently Sustic serves as the World Bonsai Friendship Federation North American Regional Director and President of the North American Bonsai Federation.

Melvyn Goldstein works on one of his Satsuki azalea bonsai. Goldstein is a donor, University of Michigan alumnus, and bonsai collector and artist. For the past several years Goldstein has provided Satsuki azalea to Matthaei-Nichols for display in June when the azalea bloom. 

Jack Sustic stands amid the bonsai collection at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. Jack was the curator National Bonsai & Penjing Museum at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. from 2002 to 2016.

Every Bonsai Tree Tells a Story
Some bonsai tell a story through their design. A bonsai in the cascade style will give the effect of a tree growing over an abyss. A forest style bonsai will convey the natural development of a stand of trees or forest. And some bonsai tell the story of their lives as trees or plants, where they came from and who took care of them.
One tree in particular Sustic liked to work on at the National Museum was an ezo spruce. This spruce came from Saburo Kato, a Japanese bonsai master who “made possible the 1976 Bicentennial bonsai gift that lead to the birth of the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum,” according to the National Bonsai Foundation. “Saburo Kato collected the tree in the north of Japan when he was about 12 years old,” Sustic says.
Later in life, Sustic explains, Saburo realized he didn’t have one of his trees in the National Arboretum collection and wanted to donate a spruce tree. At the time there was a problem with bringing or importing spruce into the U.S. because the tree may host a fungus that infects rhododendron and azalea.
“However, Mr. Kato knew the Japanese prime minister, Keizō Obuchi, who gifted the tree to then-President Bill Clinton in 1998,” Sustic explains. Clinton couldn’t keep the tree because of rules for presidents taking gifts above a certain value, so he donated it to the National Arboretum. The tree was flown to Washington and placed in quarantine.
In 1999 Prime Minister Obuchi visited the U.S. and the tree was put on display in the blue room at the White House. Sustic recalls how he got momentarily “stuck” in the White House that morning.
“The morning of the ceremony for the prime minister’s visit, I went to the White House to water the tree,” Sustic recalls. The White House butler let Sustic in and took him up to the blue room.
“I watered it and finished but then nobody came back to take me out or check in on me.” Sustic says he found himself wandering around parts of the White House, looking out the windows and even finding himself in the nearby yellow room at one point. “Looking out a window I could see the band below starting to play for the ceremony for the prime minister.” Eventually the butler returned and took him out of the White House.

Japanese bonsai master Saburō Katō stands with a forest bonsai at his garden and nursery Mansei-en in Japan. Katō “made possible the 1976 Bicentennial bonsai gift that lead to the birth of the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum,” according to the National Bonsai Foundation.

A close-up of azalea blossoms on one of Melvyn Goldstein’s blooming Satsuki azalea at Matthaei Botanical Gardens.

Bonsai for a Better World
There is an inevitable question for any artist or person who is devoted to a practice or a way of life: What does it mean, and what is it all about? Sustic cautions that, as with many pursuits or passions, “not everyone’s going to get it.”
For those who seek, however, “bonsai is very therapeutic,” he says. “I go back to Mr. Kato. If everyone did bonsai there’d be more peace in the world.”
Sustic says that before he started bonsai he used to be a less patient person. The art of bonsai asks its practitioners to be meditative and mindful.
Bonsai, Sustic believes, “makes you more aware of your environment and of the seasons. Bonsai helps you to stop and smell the roses. Ultimately, it makes you a better person.”