SAN MARINO, Calif. – Whether you’re looking at a book, a sculpture or a tree at The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, the most common question is ‘how old is that?’ It’s something Ted Matson, the curator of the bonsai collection, answers every day. 

“This is a California Juniper,” said Matson. “This is a pretty famous tree for The Huntington. It’s probably close to a thousand years old. Now what makes this tree unique is all this dead skeletal wood. This is the only lifeline supporting the top.”

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What started as a hobby for Mason became a lifelong obsession. Originally from North Dakota, he moved to the West Coast over 40 years ago to become a writer, but when he happened across a book with a bonsai on the cover, it piqued his interest. Shortly after, he trimmed his first bonsai tree and when it bloomed the next day, he was hooked.




“Bonsai technically means tree in a tree, tree in a pot,” said Matson. “In this case, these are Italian Cypresses that were planted in a man-made container. Since they’re trees that are in containers and they’re living things, we have to provide everything for them.”

Which means nutrients, water, light, circulation, fertilizer and managing pests. And with hundreds of trees in The Huntington bonsai collection, Mason spends most of his time in the nursery, but to assume these bonsais are babies would be a mistake. Most of them are hundreds of years old, which you can tell by measuring the width of the blade or dead skeleton. One bonsai is 1800 years old.

“This line here represents about 1400 years ago,” said Matson as he measured the dead skeleton of a bonsai in the nursery. “That’s when Chaucer’s Canterbury’s Tales were being written. If we go back to 1600, that is about right in there, so that’s, that tree would’ve been living along that ridge when Shakespeare wrote his works.”

Both of which are in The Huntington collection so Mason curated an exhibit pairing bonsai trees with masterpieces of art and literature to show how timelines and lifelines intersect.

“The thing that makes bonsai so remarkable and what makes people so passionate about it is that you're working with something that's living and you're working with something that has the potential to outlive you by many many generations,” said Matson.

Like masterpieces but made by nature. 

Editor’s note: Due to Covid-19 health concerns, The Huntington is closed  to visitors through April 14, 2020. The bonsai exhibition “Lifelines/Timelines: Exploring The Huntington’s Collections Through Bonsai” will resume when the institution reopens. Check The Huntington’s website for updates: