Combining elements of art, design, and horticulture, bonsai has a rich history in Japanese culture. Learn more about the thriving collection at U-M’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens, and leaf through the strictly defined styles of the genre in these photos.

Staff members and volunteers at U-M’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum help to manage more than 700 acres of gardens, research areas, and natural preserves. But it’s the collection of just 64 plants that stand no more than a few feet high that requires perhaps the most skill and attention: Matthaei’s Bonsai and Penjing Garden.

Bonsai (pronounced “bone-sigh”) is a Japanese term that means growing a miniature tree or trees in a pot in order to refine and heighten their beauty. The art originated in China, where it is called "penjing,” and dates back more than 2,000 years. Bonsai focuses almost exclusively on single trees, while penjing features landscapes or several trees together. And while the Chinese tradition is older, the Japanese were responsible for introducing the art form to the rest of the world.

Nearly all of the specimens at Matthaei are bonsai, and the roots of the collection are in the Japanese form. It began in 1977, when Matthaei accepted the bonsai collection of Dr. Maurice Seevers, the former chair of the U-M Department of Pharmacology, from his estate. It has since grown through close collaboration with the Ann Arbor Bonsai Society, whose members volunteer to help tend to the plants, give advice on styling, and answer questions for visitors. Members have also donated several bonsai trees.

“It’s a nice, symbiotic relationship,” says Collection Manager Carmen Leskoviansky. “When you work on these trees, you literally go branch by branch, leaf by leaf, and consider every single aspect of the tree before you do anything. It’s pretty complicated, and it takes time.”

In addition to caring for the branches and leaves, attention must be paid to training the roots, maintaining the soil, and watching for pests. Even the pots the trees are displayed in are chosen carefully on an individual basis. Through this approach, trees can live to be more than 100 years old and come to be valued at thousands of dollars.

Matthaei used to be able to display only a handful of its bonsai trees at one time, but through the help of donors, a new, dedicated garden opened in 2013. It’s located behind the conservatory and is open daily 10:00 AM–8:00 PM, weather permitting. A visit is a chance to admire an ancient, living art form in a collection that mirrors its specimens: impressive for its size, cultivated over decades, and the result of meticulous planning and care.

To learn more about the collection, please follow the link below: 


Photos by Carlos Diaz and Matt Nelson.