Photograph courtesy USDA-U.S. National Arboretum
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The Japanese white pine that survived the atomic bomb was given to the U.S. as a 200th birthday present. Here, it’s surrounded by morning glories in 2013.

Photograph courtesy USDA-U.S. National Arboretum

This Bonsai Survived Hiroshima But Its Story Was Nearly Lost

The Japanese white pine weathered four centuries of history, including the atomic bomb.

A centuries-old bonsai that survived the bombing of Hiroshima is making worldwide headlines, but its caretakers wish the attention were focused more on the tree's role in peace than in war.

The Japanese white pine, which was potted 390 years ago, belonged to a family that lived within two miles of where American forces dropped the atomic bomb 70 years ago this week. The family had cared for the tree for five generations before giving it the United States in 1975.

As the anniversary of the bombing approaches, the tree's story has gone viral.

But the bonsai “was not given because of Hiroshima,” says Kathleen Emerson-Dell, who helps care for the tree at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. “It was a gift of friendship, and connection—the connection of two different cultures.”

In fact, the Arboretum wasn't aware of the Hiroshima connection until 2001, when two grandchildren of bonsai master Masaru Yamaki visited the arboretum’s National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, looking for their grandfather's tree. Yamaki had given the tree to the United States in advance of the country's bicentennial.

Since then, the arboretum hasn't kept the tree's survival of World War II a secret, but "we just don’t shout it from the rooftops,” Emerson-Dell says.

The bombing of Hiroshima was one of two atomic bomb attacks that led to the end of World War II, killing around 140,000 people and destroying the city. Yamaki’s perfectly crafted trees, including the white pine, were protected in a walled nursery.

Today, the white pine stands only a few feet tall, with a thick trunk and stubby green and yellowed needles. Wires keep the branches from reaching up toward the sun. “Wrinkles, and crud, and crookedness, all this stuff—it’s what gives it character,” says Emerson-Dell. “It's like Katharine Hepburn—it’s like, the beauty in age.”

Now, Dell hopes that people see the tree as a celebration of survival. “There’s some connection with a living being that has survived on this earth through who knows what,” she says. “I’m in its presence, and it was in the presence of other people from long ago.”

Reaching out to touch the pot, she says, “It’s like touching history.”

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