Ikebana: The Art of Japanese Flower Arrangement

With their strong branches and textural foliage, herbs gracefully lend themselves to the traditional Japanese art of flower arranging.

| April/May 2001

  • For this wintertime nageire arrangement, a tall, narrow handmade vase with a line in the glaze that accents the arrangement’s motion. All of the plant material was killed by the frost and collected from the author’s winter garden. The shin, used in a left upright style, is a stalk of echinacea that has gone to seed. The natural branching of the stalk into three emphasizes how nature creates its own arrangements. The soe, which moves to the right, is a dried mullein stalk. The hikae on the left is a single stalk of dried Queen-Anne’s-lace with jushi of more Queen-Anne’s-lace, rose hips, and yarrow. The arrangement is stark and plain with subtle color shadings that take second place to the dramatic lines.
  • Ikebana arrangements are always described from the Buddha’s perspective. So elements to the viewer’s left are described as being on the right, and vice versa. The chabana style has no formal rules of proportion; it relies on the artist’s eye to achieve a sense of rightness and harmony. This spring arrangement includes a tall river willow branch in bloom. The yellow flowers, symbolic of present, past, and future, are salsify. They are anchored in a small kensan. The elements were chosen to echo spring light as it comes through the garden.
  • For this fall arrangement, the shin, soe, and hikae are branches of frost-kissed red raspberry. The shin and soe are to the left of the centerline, and the hikae moves to the right. The jushi are calendula blossoms in full bloom, representing the height of the season. The kensan is centered in the oval, shallow pottery bowl, a family heirloom. Hiding the kensan is golden oregano that blends well with the container. The effect recalls a clear fall day.
  • For this summer arrangement, the material was grouped tightly together in the kensan to look as though it rose from a single stem. Simple colors reflect the many shades of green found in the garden. The shin, in the left upright style, is a long-stemmed rosebud that echoes the container and represents the future. The soe, on the right, is a branch of wild aster. The hikae, on the left, is a miniature rose at its height of bloom. Lushness and textural density are achieved with jushi of valerian leaf, a miniature rose almost past its prime, aster, double feverfew, thyme, a fennel frond, Italian parsley, and tansy leaf. Although not classical in ratio, this arrangement attempts to depict the essence of summer.

There is something about ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement, that beckons to me. I find that the contemplation of a single flower, placed just so against a branch, evokes pure nature with startling clarity.

Ikebana began 1,500 years ago when Buddhist priests flanked temple statues of the Buddha with arrangements of flowers and branches. Symbolic, stylized, and in proportion to the statue, these arrangements, called rikka (or “standing-up plant cuttings”), might be more than 15 feet tall. Over the years, rikka evolved, becoming ever more stylized with strict rules to govern the plant material, type of container, and the placement of the odd number (usually seven or nine) of branches. During the sixteenth century, nobles made smaller, more elaborate arrangements to decorate the Japanese imperial court. Picture scrolls from this period show samurai sitting in contemplation and appreciation of these rikka arrangements.

In the beginning, ikebana was practiced only by men. Not until about 1860 were women allowed to learn its rules. Today, many different styles of ikebana are practiced, and the art form is still evolving. While it is still steeped in tradition, practitioners exercise much freedom from its restrictive beginnings. Ikebana is alive and in flux in modern Japan.

Traditional ikebana arrangements are both symbolic and naturalistic, embracing the three principles of the art form: kioku, the consideration of growth; shitsu, the feeling for composition, and ji, evocation of the season. The use of flowers is secondary and may be symbolic, and they are often portrayed in each of the three stages of growth: in bud, just opening, and fully open to represent the future, present, and past, respectively. The main focus, however, is on the line, rhythm, and balance of the arrangement’s main stems.

Herbs lend themselves gracefully to ikebana. Although their flowers may be small, many herbs have strong branches with delightfully textured foliage. The rapid growth habits of some herbs create artistically gnarled stems, often in less than a single growing season. Unexpected and delicious scents often waft from herbal arrangements. I’ve also found that herbs tend to last longer in the vase than traditional cut flowers. Sometimes my ikebana herbs sprout roots, allowing me to take them from vase back to garden, where they can continue to grow and be enjoyed.

Herbal ikebana is about form, rhythm, and a sense of season. Most Americans are so far from “the good earth” and an appreciation of natural, local seasons that we suffer no sense of discontinuity when grocery stores are packed with watermelons in April. One of the goals of herbal ikebana is to center us in the now, in the present time, and in the season.

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