A few Christmases ago a client of mine gave me a Donkey Ear plant-baby, carefully wrapped in a moist paper towel and tucked into a plastic sandwich bag. She assured me that it was easy to care for and that I would enjoy it for years to come. “All you have to do is put it in a small pot, about an inch deep in the soil, and give it a little water so that the roots can grow…it’s so easy!”

That’s precisely what I did…and it grew, and it grew and it grew! In no time the baby was a few inches tall, with leaves growing in four directions and new leaves coming up in between. Months later it out-grew its pot. I found a bigger home for it, where it thrived and grew very quickly, with leaves thickening and getting larger with each round of new growth. I could see why it is called the Donkey Ear plant, since the mature leaves favor the shape of the beast’s ears. Brown spots on the large, thick leaves add a bit of pizazz to the exotic-looking succulent.

It seemed to stagnate somewhat this year, just over 2.5 feet tall. This fall I noticed that the biggest leaves around the bottom were turning shades of brown and yellow. We had survived Hurricane Irma, and even though the plant was sheltered inside, I feared that moving it inside may have damaged it somehow.

Once storm clean up was complete, I put the plant in a new spot on the carport, where it could soak in the healing rays of our intense Florida sun. That didn’t seem to help, as more and more green pigment faded to yellowish-brown on its 12″ brown speckled leaves. The edges of the leaves began to curl under, which indicated the health of the plant was waning.

We have a porch with a table just off the carport, where I enjoy watching the sun wake up through the massive oak trees in our yard. It is one of my favorite spots for writing, reflecting and sometimes just counting how many different bird songs I can hear when I close my eyes. It is my very special place -where my imagination flows best.

Sitting at that table, looking at the ailing Donkey Ear plant that I had grown to care about,  I reflected on some recent hardships in my life… and went back even further to some dark times when I felt like I was dying on the inside. Drawing parallels between personal past pain and what this plant was showing, I became sad because I felt like my green thumb let me down and I wondered if I had killed this intriguing plant.

I had to go examine it closer. I spent a few minutes looking at the foliage up close, which now had tall spires shooting up from the main trunk of the plant. Is this what it does before death? One last, dramatic attempt to reach more sun? I did not know. Then I looked down and was somehow compelled to trace the edge of a curled leaf to look at its underside.

What was that – clinging to the end of the dying leaf? Why – it was a baby plant, complete with tiny pink roots reaching down – searching for water. In amazement, I cupped the baby in the palm of my hand and it released from the leaf with the gentle pressure of my hand.

Looking at the ends of more leaves I found more babies. A dozen or more! Some were bigger, some were tiny… but all had tiny pink roots dangling from the bottom, indicating that this one, dying plant was going to perpetuate and live on. I was excited, energized with wonder and went back to my very special place on the corner of the porch. Picking up where I had left off with the dark thoughts of a painful past, I completed the parallel between personal pain and the new life that has sprung forth from them.

Not that I chose for certain things to happen in my young years of life, but I could now see in many ways how they have become a part of my passion to share inspiration and encouragement with others. Who else is hurting? How many others do I come in contact with on a daily basis also have deep wounds from long ago? Who is walking through a dark time right now?

How amazing that this plant, native to Madagascar, could be used to touch others half a world away in Florida. Sharing the story of the Donkey Ear plant intertwined with tidbits of personal reflection and application has become something that I can do to pass on hope in a world that is wrought with hurt.

And the mother plant on our porch ? How did it fare as the weeks of autumn turned to the chilly winter weeks? Those tall shoots that came forth as the big leaves turned brown and curled under produced dozens of small, beautiful, trumpet flowers that bow their heads and give thanks for the life they have been given – despite the brown spots in life.

With the Christmas season upon us, I can’t help but relate this story to the birth of Christ. There are many analogies between the Donkey Ear plant and the Christmas story: a life from a far-away place, life that abounds through new growth, shoots that grew heavenward, the leaves and lives stained by sin, heads bowed in reverence… and best of all…the hope that comes from rebirth through dying to self. One more parallel that just occurred to me: Mary rode to Bethlehem on a donkey and on Palm Sunday, Jesus Christ himself rode into town on a donkey. I think I have a new favorite plant.Ah, the things we can learn from in nature.

May you have a blessed Christmas and happy holidays for you and yours!