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Ikebana for Westerners

Updated on July 15, 2013

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.

Source

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 The Wabi-Sabi House: The Japanese Art of Imperfect Beauty by Robyn Griggs Lawrence. (Lawrence also has a new book out, Simply Imperfect: Revisiting the Wabi-Sabi House.)

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

Abundance and perfection give Western bouquets their lush, healthy beauty.
Abundance and perfection give Western bouquets their lush, healthy beauty. | Source
Full, dense flowers en masse are typical of some of the most beautiful Western floral arrangements.
Full, dense flowers en masse are typical of some of the most beautiful Western floral arrangements. | Source
Notice the sere leaves and stems in this ikebana arrangement. If found in a typical Western bouquet from the florist, we'd demand our money back!
Notice the sere leaves and stems in this ikebana arrangement. If found in a typical Western bouquet from the florist, we'd demand our money back! | Source
Mums are often used in ikebana arrangements.
Mums are often used in ikebana arrangements. | Source

Flower Choices

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.

Flower Quantity

In ikebana, less is more. Sometimes, materials are grouped in threes or other odd numbers.
In ikebana, less is more. Sometimes, materials are grouped in threes or other odd numbers. | Source
The container is considered part of the arrangement in ikebana.
The container is considered part of the arrangement in ikebana. | Source

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.

In ikebana, artists try to use as few materials as possible to create elegant yet simple arrangements in which the color and the quantity of materials are less important than form (Grosser).


Flower Positioning

Symmetry & Asymmetry

A winter ikebana arrangement. See the three lines?
A winter ikebana arrangement. See the three lines? | Source

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?

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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

Ikebana Video Tutorial in Under 10 Minutes

Source

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.

Copyright © 2013 by The Dirt Farmer. All rights reserved.

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    • The Dirt Farmer profile imageAUTHOR

      Jill Spencer 

      6 years ago from United States

      You're so right, Anna! And wouldn't it be elegant, too? Great to hear from you & thanks for your comments--Take care, Jill

    • profile image

      AnnaStephens 

      6 years ago

      I'm thinking ikebana arrangements could be perfect for weddings - both the bouquet (a hand-held version) and the table decorations. As someone who recently got engaged (yippee!) I'm saving this for future contemplation.

      And, to be honest, it would be probably be a whole lot cheaper than ordering thousands of flowers.

      Brilliant hub!

    • The Dirt Farmer profile imageAUTHOR

      Jill Spencer 

      6 years ago from United States

      Hi Rebecca! There's something about the seeming simplicity of ikebana that's very appealing. Fall sounds like a great time to make an arrangement. Think of all the interesting looking seed pods you can use! Thanks for commenting!--Jill

    • rose-the planner profile image

      rose-the planner 

      6 years ago from Toronto, Ontario-Canada

      An excellent article on the art of Ikebana. Thank you for sharing. (Voted Up) -Rose

    • The Dirt Farmer profile imageAUTHOR

      Jill Spencer 

      6 years ago from United States

      Hi Patricia! How fortunate you were to actually take a class in ikebana IN JAPAN. Thanks for commenting & sharing. --Jill

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 

      6 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      I love this. This is the first I have heard of The Ikebana arrangement. I can't wait to try it this fall. I hope I can find some of those pins. Thanks for sharing this!

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 

      6 years ago from sunny Florida

      Wow, Jill . this took me back to Japan. While I lived there we were able to take lots of different classes and this was one of them. I have never really used it but love the way the flowers look. I do prefer to have living plants but do appreciate the effort and beauty these displays offer. Pinned and shared

      Angels are on the way ps

    • The Dirt Farmer profile imageAUTHOR

      Jill Spencer 

      6 years ago from United States

      I like the simplicity, too, Deb. It's a nice change and a way to be reflective and mindful--although I love a big, lush vase of flowers as well!

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Jill, I LIKE the simplicity and what it stands for. To me, it seems to have more of a connection with real life. I never heard about ikebana until now, and I have you to thank for it.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile imageAUTHOR

      Jill Spencer 

      6 years ago from United States

      Thanks for your comments, vibesites. I think, too, that ikebana shows an acceptance of the cycle of life as beautiful, not just the spring and summer of life. Perhaps as the older pop. in the U.S. grows, that idea will grow here, too. Take care, Jill

    • vibesites profile image

      vibesites 

      6 years ago from United States

      Thanks for introducing me more to Ikebana, which I previously thought of as only for for flower arranging. It's the manifestation that the Japanese really respect nature and they're happily a part of it. Even in their zen gardens which consist of only rocks and sands which represent the mountains and the seas, respectively. It's really amazing that less indeed can be more.

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