The Parable of the Banyan (Or, How I Planted a Tree in a Rock)

Following the loss of my mother two years ago, I received a mysterious package containing a bonsai Schefflera from an unknown, yet incredibly thoughtful benefactor. I was humbled by the generous gift, but since I was admittedly a little off my gardening game at the time, I forgot to water the new bonsai for a week and found two dead stems staring me in the face. The one surviving stem had a lot to teach me.

The only Schefflera that survived was the one on the right
It's hard to accept that you've killed a plant under any circumstances, but when that plant was given to you as consolation for the death of a loved one, your failure to keep it alive comes as an especially brutal reminder of life's irrefutable fragility. I brushed aside the pungent and peppery smelling dead leaves searching for signs of life, and was soon rewarded with a glimpse of a firm, green stem surviving.

The shriveled and black stems easily slipped free of the bonsai gravel, but ever the optimist, I decided to leave the remaining stem in place. Eventually leaves pushed out to announce its revival, and I started thinking of ways to repot it into a smaller container. As fate would have it, the schefflera's new container would also be a gift.

I was writing my book Plant by Numbers at the time and had taken a trip out to my friend Nancy McDonald's greenhouses to look at her plants and use a few samples, but before I knew it she had filled up my car with a multitude of exciting houseplants to combine in my book. As if that wasn't generous enough, she insisted that I take home a couple of lava rocks as well. Each rock had a hole carved out to accommodate plants, so I hatched a plan.

My mother had always loved banyan trees. Something about their tenacity perhaps, or maybe it was just the sheer sight of them; towering mountains with a mess of roots dangling from their branches, ready to grow into a cathedral of column-like trunks the minute they reach the ground. Banyans are also called strangler figs (the native Floridian Ficus aurea especially) for their tendency to engulf other trees and structures with their snaking and amorphous mass of roots, trunks and branches. There are many trees that have a banyan habit, and Ficus, Schefflera, Clusia and Annona are only a few genera with banyans in their ranks.

To the left is a photo of my mom standing under a majestic Ficus benghalensis specimen outside of a Days Inn in Punta Gorda, taking advantage of one of the last days she would be able to stand or walk on her own. We had traveled to South Florida together to deliver her Florida landscape paintings to several art galleries, and her declining health was just then starting to make itself apparent. Looking back, I feel terrible for encouraging her to walk a little further on our hike through the Fakahatchee Strand, but those were some of the best days that either of us had ever experienced, in our entire lives. Come to think of it, that was the trip that led me to plant a 'rainforest garden' for my mother and become a gardener in the first place.

At the end of the boardwalk we found a menagerie of animals so unreal that it looked like a scene from Noah's Ark or an old Disney movie. Mother alligators watched over their newly hatched young while several different snake species sunned along with turtles on mossy logs jutting out of clear waters. Herons, egrets and songbirds stalked fish beside the gators' toothy grins and orchids dangled from the treetops, swaying in the cool winter breeze. A barred owl patiently watched over the whole scene with such serenity that I'll forever associate it with my mother herself, watching down from cypress trees in heaven.

The one picture I got of her from that trip is the one of her posing with that banyan tree, so it's hard to resist drawing comparisons between the banyan tree and her tenacious grip on life. Jesus had a parable about a mustard seed, but had he lived in a tropical rainforest, I'm pretty sure he would have made some pretty awesome metaphors using banyan trees. These trees are massive enough to smother any trees in their path and strong enough to uproot sidewalks and buildings, yet they begin their noteworthy lives in nothing more than a pile of excrement.

That's right, poop. Ka-ka. Feces. You can stop me anytime now. Crap. Turds... You get the point.

The biggest banyan in the world takes up a whopping four acres, yet it and most other banyans only begin life when a bird eats one of another tree's fruits, passes it through its digestive system and unceremoniously deposits it in the treetops as a bird dropping. Plop! That little parcel of poo might look like a miserable place to live if you have the wrong attitude, but believe it or not, that humble shithole (there, I said it) is sticky enough to adhere the seed to a high and lofty spot closer to the sun, and is filled with the nutrients it needs to begin its path to jungle domination.

Eventually it occurred to me that since my little struggling bonsai was also a banyan, it would look especially sculptural when planted in my lava rock. I envisioned its roots snaking down the surface of the rock and thickening into muscular footholds like the meticulously rendered and dynamic looking grasping hands one would find in a Renaissance sculpture.

How I Did It
Making a tree grow from a rock was easy, but it did take some time before it started looking like a proper tree. I pulled the tiny stump out of the pot and placed it into the rock's opening, tucking in moist sphagnum moss around the roots. Since I wanted the tree's trunk to grow at an angle, I planted the cutting diagonally. To encourage the growth of smaller leaves, I pinched out all of the existing leaves and removed any stems that I thought were unnecessary to the tree's form. I added Selaginella cuttings to add a touch of realism, but they died when I forgot to water the rock for a week... or two. To hold everything together, I wrapped the cuttings to the rock tightly with some burlap twine.

The tree's roots had wrapped around the rock, so I removed the twine.
I placed the porous lava rock in a dish of water, and within weeks watched tiny rootlets and moss form along the rock's surface. Once the roots had wrapped around the rock, I removed the twine. By the time we moved last October, I got lazy and took the banyan out of its dish, just leaving it to its own devices in my moss garden where it continues to thrive.

Wabi-Sabi is a Japanese principle that is especially well suited to bonsai, because it is defined as finding beauty in the reality that nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. My mother understood this concept well, and would definitely appreciate the imperfection on my bonsai along with each of the other imperfections she endured in her lifetime. This tree could really grow enmeshed with its lava rock for years, unfinished and imperfect, yet beautiful. Someday it too will die, and I hope that I can find the beauty in that as well.

Flash forward to today, and the roots have taken on a life of their own.
Actually, maybe it's time I give them a pruning.

To me, this tree growing in a rock is a little miracle and a testament to life's ability to carry on through adversity and become all the more beautiful through the process. And to think that I almost threw it all away.


  1. Amazing story and beautiful bonsai! Love your philosophy on life--it holds true for many things. Thanks for the wonderful and inspiring posts.

  2. What an awesome and touching story, Steve. So sorry you have lost your mom. I have plants from funerals of special people and they are my most cherished plants.

  3. I absolutely LOVE it. You are an artist.

  4. Wow that looks really fantastic. I'm so glad you were able to save it.

  5. A touching story of love, beautifully told. Thank you.

  6. Beautiful piece!
    Life re-created.
    How long did it take to grow this tall?


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