The Intersection of Plants and People

Life Lessons from a Tiny Tree

At the Denver Botanic Gardens in Colorado, a team of horticulturalists have created a special program for people whose lives have been interrupted by cancer. While the participants have this illness in common, their focus during the class is on creating a bonsai to take home and care for, hopefully for years to come.

Bonsai are lined up for admiring visitors. Photo courtesy of the Denver Botanic Gardens

Bonsai are lined up for admiring visitors. Photo courtesy of the Denver Botanic Gardens

Last year, Linda Cooper, a clinical social worker at the Rocky Mountain Cancer Center in Denver, approached Angie Andrade Foster, the Horticultural Therapist at the Gardens. Cooper wanted to develop a program for people going through cancer treatments as well as for survivors. In response, Foster collaborated with the on-site Bonsai Specialist, Larry Jackel, to help create a multi-session course that would combine the ancient art form of bonsai with the relatively new practice of horticultural therapy.

“A lot of the trees that we have on our site are trees that are collected from the wild, and they’re really interesting because they’ve been battered down by the wind and the elements from nature, and they look gnarled, but they’re still surviving and still looking really noble,” explains Foster, describing the Gardens’ own collection housed at the Bill Hosokawa Bonsai Pavilion. “So we can connect a lot of those kinds of things with life in general.”

Bonsai (pronounced BOHN-zeye) is the art of growing and trimming a tree or plant over time so that it eventually resembles one growing in the wild. Its branches can be trained to form an umbrella-like canopy or to reach out sideways as if it had sprouted from a crag on a windswept mountain peak. The difference between a stunning tree seen far off in the landscape and a bonsai, is that the latter is potted, and delightfully miniature.

Bonsai can be grown from seed, started from a nursery plant, or cut back from an older, dwarfed tree. Sometimes a small, wild tree gathered from a forest is placed into a container, or, following a more recent trend, a tree about to be bulldozed from a landscape is rescued and pruned back to bonsai form.

A potted bonsai, such as those called “mame” (pronounced MAH-may) can be small enough to hold in two cupped hands, or be as much as forty inches tall — what the Japanese would call a “four-man tree,” because its size requires four men to move the pot. Though bonsai was brought to the Western world from Japan, the art originated in China. Centuries ago, the Chinese shared the technique with their neighbors in Korea and Japan.

Foster explains that, during the bonsai class, the metaphor of how the plants have endured hardship is not lost on the students.

A deciduous bonsai's leaves begin to change to autumn colors. Photo courtesy of the Denver Botanic Gardens

A deciduous bonsai’s leaves begin to change to their autumn colors. Photo courtesy of the Denver Botanic Gardens

“We do a tour out in the Bonsai Pavilion, and we just talk about the trees and about how resilient they are, talk about what they’ve gone through — and you know, most people make those connections themselves,” she says.

As the students learn to prune and wire the small Junipers provided by the Gardens, the topic ultimately comes back around to what they most need to discuss openly: cancer.

“We don’t really just bring it out there,” Foster says, “but it always comes back around to that.”

That’s one part of how the horticultural therapy with bonsai works.

Jackel fell in love with the art of bonsai in 1972, when he was captivated by a little, Silver Birch forest in a pot. An experienced speaker and teacher, Jackel himself finds the work of bonsai to be a therapeutic exercise.

“It’s pretty much like any other artist doing an art form when you’re working on your own piece,” he says. “You’re a hundred percent focused and concentrating on what you’re doing at that moment. And so being in that moment is really very satisfying. All your cares are kind of gone.”

A cluster of tiny trees invite viewers on an imaginary walk. Photo courtesy of the Denver Botanic Gardens

A cluster of tiny trees invite viewers on an imaginary walk. Photo courtesy of the Denver Botanic Gardens

Jackel notes that another benefit of working with bonsai is the partnership that develops between the gardener and the plant. In his own backyard, Jackel has bonsai trees he’s been working on since 1985.

During the workshop, Jackel gently explains how to treat the Juniper so that it continues to live, how to design it to look like a miniature, undomesticated tree, and how to manage its growth over the years by continuing to sculpt its form. Ultimately, the goal of a bonsai master is to take the viewer to a place in his or her imagination.

“If I could put a forest in a little pot that makes you want to walk right into it and go into the forest, I’ve succeeded in making the bonsai the way I want,” Jackel explains.

Like any full-grown tree, a deciduous bonsai’s leaves change with the seasons. A little Maple will have flaming red and yellow leaves in the autumn that drop delicately onto the soil of its container until the plant’s trunk is bare. In the spring, it sprouts fresh, diminutive leaves. Both deciduous and coniferous bonsai native to the environment in which they’re raised can remain outside year-round, enduring a four-season climate. And bonsai can easily outlive their gardeners, a concept both humbling and inspiring. Jackel says that one tree at the Bonsai Pavilion is about 350 years old.

Cooper, who has encouraged many of her own therapy patients to come to the bonsai workshop, says that the response from participants has been overwhelming.

“There are wonderful, almost moment-by-moment lessons throughout this whole thing where people will select their plant, and each of the plants prior to them working on it look a bit different, but not much,” Cooper says.

A miniature pine tree on display at the Bill Hosokawa Bonsai Pavilion. Photo courtesy of Denver Botanic Gardens

A miniature pine tree on display at the Bill Hosokawa Bonsai Pavilion. Photo courtesy of Denver Botanic Gardens

“And as they go into the pruning and the wiring and the repotting, it becomes abundantly clear how very different each of these plants are, and yet they’re the same. And I think for individuals with any sort of a chronic illness to still be able to not see themselves just as that illness, but to be able to see themselves as somewhat unique and yet at the same time, to realize that we are all the same, is just exceedingly profound.”

While Cooper cautions that the program’s goal is not to try to heal the cancer itself, she says that the participants have benefited from the deeply moving experience.

“It often has made them feel better about themselves and be able to put all of what’s going on into perspective,” Cooper says. “And that often is as great a gift as the actual healing of the cancer.”

While Foster heads up several other horticultural therapy programs at the Gardens, she hopes the uniqueness of the bonsai therapy will continue to help people dealing with such a startling life change as cancer.

“It’s different with bonsai because there’s more behind it — more theory, more pruning — that creates that partnership,” she says, adding, “You can start out with a little plant and create whatever you want out of it.”

For additional horticultural therapy resources, visit the Therapeutic Landscapes Network.

For more about the art of Bonsai, see Bonsai Clubs International.

For more information about the Denver Botanic Gardens’ Horticultural Therapy Programs, click here.

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