Ikebana for Westerners
Ikebana is an art form like sculpting, painting or writing poetry. It's also a philosophy, a way of looking at life and interacting with the natural world.
Many gardeners aren't all that fond of cut flowers, preferring their "floral arrangements" alive and growing in a flowerpot or bed, but I've always loved receiving bouquets fresh from the florist.
Like most women, I've received cut flowers in vases and baskets—even in buckets. Typical Western arrangements, their blooms are always so perfect and so perfectly packed in, without the brown spots, bug bites (and occasionally live bugs) and empty spaces that ordinarily mar the arrangements I make at home.
I love the smell of bouquets from the florist, too (even if the odor is fake).
But lately I've also been attracted to the Japanese art of flower arranging, ikebana, which derives its beauty in ways that are quite different from the lushly packed arrangements typical in the West.
I thought of ikebana just the other day, after re-reading by Robyn Griggs Lawrence. (Lawrence also has a new book out, Simply Imperfect: Revisiting the Wabi-Sabi House.) The Wabi-Sabi House: The Japanese Art of Imperfect Beauty
In the Wabi-Sabi House, Lawrence tries to explain wabi-sabi in a way that Westerners can understand, which gave me the idea of explaining ikebana by contrasting it with the florists' bouquets we're familiar with in the West.
Typical Western Bouquets
Materials for Floral Arrangements
While flower arrangements purchased through a typical Western florist are densely packed bouquets that feature only the most perfect specimens of flowerhood, often en masse, ikebana arrangements often feature the less than "perfect": withered leaves, bare branches, seed pods and other plant parts that are both beautiful and indicative of decay and the cycle of life.
In addition to full-blown flowers and glossy green leaves that are typical in Western floral arrangements, ikebana arrangements often contain buds, mosses and grasses. According to Ikebana International, this is true for all types and schools of ikebana.
Using plants that are in season is also a universal element of ikebana. Unlike Western bouquets, ikebana arrangements will not consist of hothouse flowers. Tropical flowers and aquatic plants are also not used.
Links to Photos of Ikebana Arrangements
- Living Flowers: Ikebana & Contemporary Art
Photos of an ikebana display at the Japanese American National Museum.
- Ikebana Japanese flower arrangement photo gallery.
- Ikebana Flower Arrangement
A Pinterest board of ikebana images.
Number of Materials
While Western floral arrangements typically pack in complementary flowers for stunning displays that overwhelm with their beauty, ikebana arrangements operate under the principal that less is more.
Symmetry & Asymmetry
While Western arrangements often focus on color and symmetry, ikebana arrangements are asymmetrical yet balanced—in the way that nature is balanced through the juxtaposition of opposites.
Basically, the arrangements have three main lines of materials: one that sits upright in the middle to symbolize heaven; one that leans away from the center to symbolize humanity and another that leans from the center on the other side to represent the Earth.
While Western arrangements sometimes call for the tallest flower to be twice the height of the container, ikebana arrangements vary in height by line as well as by container height and material type.
Heaven, the center line, is usually 1-3/4 times the height of the container, while the leaning lines, humankind and earth, are proportional to the center line and to each other. Ideally, humankind is 3/4 the length of heaven, and earth 3/4 the length of humankind.
However, the container and the natural propensities of the materials used also factor into the ikebana flower arranger's art (Grosser).
Have you ever tried Ikebana?
QUICK INTROS TO IKEBANA
The Study of Ikebana
Ikebana flower arrangers spend years learning about and practicing the art of ikebana. There are five primary styles of ikebana practiced worldwide today (Flower Arrangement Advisor). In Japan alone, there are at least three formal schools where ikebana is exclusively taught (Grosser).
Still, everyone has to start somewhere! Why not start here?
Here are two video tutorials about ikebana as well as other resources for beginners. Think of them as paint-by-number sets or training wheels on your ikebana bicycle. Have fun!
Who knows? You may have an affinity for it and decide to enjoy and pursue the art of ikebana long term.
10-Minute Ikebana Tutorial
- Easy Ikebana: Floral Accents for the Home by Reiko Takenaka
This book includes simple step-by-step directions for constructing 55 of your own ikebana creations.
- How To Do A Very Basic Ikebana Flower Arrangement
Ikebana Video Tutorial in Under 10 Minutes
About the Author
The Dirt Farmer has been an active gardener for over 30 years.
She first began gardening as a child alongside her grandfather on her parents' farm.
Today, The Dirt Farmer gardens at home, volunteers at community gardens and continues to learn about gardening through the MD Master Gardener program.