Ikebana: The Art of Japanese Flower Arrangement

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

Go outside and look at what is flourishing in your garden at this very moment. Take the time to see the herbs that are so useful in the kitchen and medicine cabinet as objects of balance and artistry. Gather them serenely, and let their spare beauty bring calmness and focus to your life.

Rules of ikebana

Ikebana arrangements contain three main branches. The longest branch stands for heaven or spiritual truth; the middle, for man, or the harmonizer; and the shortest, for earth or material substance. The Japanese names for the branches vary from school to school, but here I’ll call them shin, soe, and hikae. Supporting accents, called jushi, are used in uneven numbers to emphasize the three primary lines.

The length of the shin should be one to two times the combined length and depth of the container. The soe is three-quarters the length of the shin, and the hikae, three-quarters that of the soe. The jushi are never longer than the branch that they echo. To signify spring, cut the branches a little shorter than the length given above; for summer, cut them a bit longer.

Imagine a centerline extending upward from the container. The tip of the shin should lie about 10 degrees off the centerline, that of the soe, about 45 degrees, and that of the hikae, about 75 degrees. Because arrangements are three-dimensional, the angles may occur in any direction.

An arrangement may be upright or may slant. Slanted arrangements are named from the perspective of the Buddha statue; thus, if the shin and soe are positioned to the right of the centerline with the hikae to the left, the result is called a left-handed arrangement. If the shin and soe are to the left of the centerline with the hikae to the right, the result is a right-handed arrangement. In either case, the angles remain in the same relative positions around a slanting centerline.

Ikebana containers

The container for an ikebana arrangement sets the overall style and designates the season as well. Pottery is common, but in summer baskets are often used. Metal containers are used only in winter to remind the viewer of ice and the reflection of light on snow.

That said, the container must not detract from the arrangement. The container also dictates whether the flowers will be held in the arrangement by the traditional split twigs,  the flat, disk-shaped, spike-covered holder known as a kensan, or the thoroughly untraditional (but very convenient) floral foam. The kensan has a significant advantage over floral foam. Stems can be impaled on its spikes, removed, and re-impaled numerous times, allowing for fine adjustments in positioning. Once a depression or hole is made in floral foam, it’s there to stay. This limits your ability to move a branch of rosemary just the tiniest hair to the left, for example.

Arrangement styles

The most accessible styles of ikebana to Westerners are probably the modern, naturalistic moribana (“heaped-up flowers”) and the casual nageire (“thrown or tossed into”).

Moribana is much like lush Occidental flower arrangements. Containers range from a shallow bowl, compote, or widemouthed trough vase to those made of natural materials such as rock or driftwood. The plant material, held by a lead kensan, may be anything you choose. The fall arrangement in the image gallery is in the moribana style.

The vase for an arrangement in the nageire style should be tall with a narrow opening. The three lines of this arrangement are spare and strive for a natural look. The winter arrangement in the image gallery is nageire.

The kensan sika style was developed in the fifteenth century from the rigid, formal rikka arrangements. The kensan is centered in a bowl, and the plant material rises from it out of the water as though from a single stem. The stem clears the rim of the bowl by several inches before branching outward. This style shows off the lush summer herbs in the image gallery to good effect.

Chabana (“tea flowers”) arrangements enhance the formal, ritualized Japanese tea ceremony. Although this style has few rules, the arrangement must be austere and simple, and bending or cutting the material is considered improper. Because tall containers are used, it is considered an offshoot of the nageire style. A spring chabana arrangement is shown at the top of this article.

Sheron Buchele has been growing herbs for more than thirty years and has created more than ninety herb-based products for Fox Ryde Gardens. She and her partner, Curtis Rowland, sell their wares at farmers’ markets and craft fairs in Northern Colorado, and online at www.foxryde.com


Ikebana International Headquarters
CPO Box 1262
Tokyo, 100-91 Japan

San Francisco Bay Chapter
of Ikebana International
Hall of Flowers Golden Gate Park
9th Ave. and Lincoln Way
San Francisco, CA 91422
(415) 566-2976

Ikebana Arts
580 N. 6th St.
San Jose, CA 95112
(408) 279-8342

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