Lessons From the Bonsai – Finally

I chose this post from the archives today because believe it or not, it is the second most viewed post from our archives.

Lessons From the Bonsai – Finally

Japanese Elm bonsai tree.

In February there were 3 babies due in our little collaborator group–so we did a virtual mother shower/ blessingway for each of them and sent our love and wishes for their birth along with some beads and a little bonsai tree suited to their climate. Above is a picture of Busca’s tree.

In doing the research for the trees I became obsessed with bonsais, so I had to get one for myself, too. Mine is the same as the one above, a Japanese Elm.

As soon as I unpacked it and started to care for it and nurture it, I wondered what the lesson was. I knew there was something this tree was going to teach me that I would one day write about. But everything about bonsai trees seemed to be backward. Rather than letting it grow big, I was keeping it small–which is the opposite of what we should do with our children and not really possible with them anyway. Other metaphors fell just as awkwardly.

So I gave up on finding meaning and just found joy in the little tree and learned a little about pruning from my friend’s husband who I learned is a closeted bonsai master. Pruning is tricky. It’s all about trying to mimic nature–but perfection in nature. Fat trunks are desirable, and little cloud-like tufts of leaves with a tapering toward the top are also desirable. Shaping bonsais takes years and years of practice and patience. Whenever I prune my bonsai, I go into trance because it is totally meditative–you have to have a vision.

You can keep your bonsai under a foot tall forever, or you can let them grow larger but still keep their miniature look. If you want them to grow, you have to re-pot them every few years in a larger pot, let them grow wild for a bit, then prune the heck out of them. You do this over and over till you get the shape you want. Some people wire or tie branches to achieve a certain shape or windswept look. Here are some pictures and examples:

This is a Ficus Retusa after a hard prune.


This is a mature ficus retusa–probably at least 25 years old. Although I’m betting this one is closer to 100–probably owned by some Japanese bonsai master who has spent his whole life shaping it.



Here is a picture of some wiring on a Azalia bonsai that is just beginning to bloom.

 Here’s a smallish azalea bonsai in bloom.


Here’s a large azalea bonsai. If you look closely you can see the wires on this one.


I’m not sure what this one is, but it is gorgeous. It might be another elm with fall colors.


This tree is about 25 years old. Mature trees like these can sell for thousands of dollars. Some as much as $25,000.


This is an award winning 75-year old Bonsai (Gmelina histrix).

It was a long time in coming, but I think I finally got my inspiration from the bonsai tree. The other morning I was lying in bed and some words came into my mind so powerfully that I knew I needed to write them down. They were: restriction is training. I had no idea what that meant, but as I lay there in that early morning hypnotic state where connections and free association happen easily, thoughts of my bonsai tree came to me. Restrictions placed on a bonsai train it to grow in a certain direction. A bonsai master places restrictions on the bonsai in order to shape it into an amazing thing of beauty. It takes patience and practice, and sometimes after a hard prune doesn’t look like much, but it is well worth it in the end.

The metaphor seems so obvious to me now, but it was a huge epiphany in the moment, when I was feeling annoyed about some restrictions in my life. It is clever how God saved this teaching moment for me when I needed it most. And of course, I see can’t help but see now how this metaphor as  applicable to parenting.

It is our job to train up these little prophets and prophetesses, (with God’s help), and sometimes we need to restrict and train them–while at the same time, God is training us. I hope that my little tree, which gives me so much joy, will always remind me of this. And one day, when I die at a ripe old age I hope one of my posterity will take over the care of my bonsai(s)–because by then I will surely have a dozen or more.

What have you learned from gardening or other growing things?


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