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Ikebana: The Japanese Art of Floral Arrangement

Japanese Art of Floral Arrangement on top of the wood.

Looking to expand your floral arranging technique by creating an airy conversational piece that will leave your space feeling alive? Look no further, the Japanese art of ikebana floral arranging is a truly unique craft with a rich history that will make you reach for a bowl instead of a vase next time you bring flowers into your home.

The name Ikebana comes from the Japanese ike, meaning ‘alive’ or ‘arrange’ and bana meaning ‘flower.’ Ikebana is a flower arranging art form that originates from Japan.

A pink lotus in full bloom.

In the sixth century, the custom of offering flowers on the Buddhist altar was introduced to Japan from China and Korea as a spiritual process to help one develop a closeness with nature and merge the indoors and outdoors. In Buddhism, flowers are used deeply as symbolism and in India where Buddhism began, the lotus flower is the representative flower for Buddhist offerings.

Japanese painting, a woman holding a tea.

There are four distinct seasons in Japan, allowing the available flowers and branches to be used for arrangements only at that specific season’s time. Many old watercolour paintings of Ikebana in Japan allow modern viewers to better understand the season in which it was painted due to the florals used. It is a practice that is highly regarded as equal to painting and sculpture in Japan.

Cherry blossoms in full bloom.

Before we dive into the history and philosophy of ikebana, it is important to understand the language that encompasses it.

Orchids and Lirio flower in a bowl.

Terms Used in Ikebana

Kenzan

Kenzan, a flower holder in Ikebana.

The kenzan is the indispensable grounding force for this art form. Translating to “sword mountain”, traditionally the tool consists of dozens of brass needles that are fused to a heavy lead base, which allows flowers to effortlessly emerge from a shallow plate of water. It also goes by the names frog pin and flower frog.

In North America, the ever-so popular flower foam that is used in large floral arrangements is unfortunately petroleum based. Studies have concluded that this green foam contains carbon black and formaldehyde, making it unsafe for florists, the customers, and the environment.

Due to the better understanding of this foam’s many factors of damage, flower foam is slowly being replaced by more sustainable flower arranging tools like kenzans and also Agra-Wool. Agra-Wool is a Dutch designed 100% natural floral foam that is actually more wool than foam.

This rock wool is made from a volcanic rock called basalt and was originally designed for hydroponics, but the creators saw the need for a more ecological solution in the florist industry, bringing it to the floral industry. Its likeness in structural strength and water absorbency are extremely important to bring forth a substitute for the original floral foam.

Kenzans can come in more than just metal forms, being made from glass, ceramic, and can be made at home using chicken wire and many other objects. The key to a kenzan, is to have it to be as invisible in your arrangement as possible and blend in underneath the shallow dish’s waterline.A tree water painting with red flowers.

Suiban

The vessel used to hold water in the art of ikebana is the suiban. It is used in both Ikebana and the art of bonsai (the cultivation technique to produce small trees that mimic the shape and style of mature, full-size trees).

The suiban is the dish or shallow plate that the kenzan is placed into and can be made from many materials. Traditionally the dishes were made by ceramic artists that could be crafted in many different shapes and styles depending on the space the arrangement would be intended for.

The Forms of Ikebana

A plant on top of the wooden stall.

The first school of flower arranging in Japan, Ikenobō, was founded by the Japanese artist Ono no Imokoin in the early 7th century. In the 16th century ikebana schools were extremely popular places to study and began to separate from its strict roots in a religious context. Today there are over 1,000 schools that still teach this art form. There are many forms of Ikebana but here will be discussing just a handful of them.

Rikka, the first form of ikebana, dates back to the 15th century. These arrangements aimed to embody an elated concept of the cosmos, rather than solely highlighting the beauty of the flowers themselves.Flower design in a woven basket.

Rikka arrangements were originally seven-branched structures symbolizing the mythical Mount Meru of Buddhist cosmology; the branches represented its peak (ryō), waterfall (), hill (qaku), valley behind the mountain (bi), and the town (shi), and the whole structure was divided into in (“shade”) and (“sun”).

It would eventually evolve into eleven branches with the addition of the common three branches found in all Japanese floral arrangements.

The three main branches, shin (“truth”), soe (“supporting”), and nagashi (“flowing”), were placed so that their tips formed a scalene triangle. The complete structure of the Japanese floral arrangement focuses on three main points symbolizing the sky, earth and man through the three pillars: asymmetry, space and depth. These three stems represented heaven, man and earth.

Flowers in a vase and a garden pruning shear.

Nagaire, which means “thrown in” is similar to what is seen traditionally in North American flower arranging. It is a style of ikebana that utilizes a tall upright vase to hold a bouquet of flowers, grasses and leaves instead of a kenzan and suiban. This allows the flowers to naturally bend and flow versus an erect display by artificial means.

Seika was born in the late eighteenth century after the interplay between Nagaire and Rikka. Seika literally means “fresh-living flowers” and was created to be placed in the tokonoma alcove. This is a recessed space in a Japanese-style reception room, in which items for artistic appreciation are displayed.

This space is used to house flower arrangements, paintings, pottery and other art forms to be displayed. Usually the arrangement would consist of one material, New Years being the exception. Contemporary Seika arrangements are created with two to three materials, the rule loosening over time.A small room in a house with painting and flowers.

Moribana means “piling up of flowers” and is a technique that allows the literal piling up of the flowers to create structural sculptures within a vase. When Unshin Ohara broke away from the famous Ikenobo School in the late 19th century, he started the Ohara School where Moribana was born.A violet million flowers in a glass flower vase.

The Philosophy of Ikebana

A violet flower in an ivory vase.

Ikebana is a meditative art and not something you can find North American floral shops creating in the masses as it is not an art form for an assembly line, but a creative meditation. Ikebana takes time and the delicacy of the arrangement being created in a grounded ceramic object should be done in the space it is to be displayed.

The Buddhist desire to preserve life lies at the root of much of Ikebana practice, and has created most of the rules of flower arrangement, controlling also the shapes of the flower vases, formed as to help to prolong the life of the flowers. Besides the flowers, the vase is something more than something to hold water, but should be considered a material in the composition.

Much like the way water pools in still ponds and large bodies of water, the surface of the water being exposed acts as a mirror and the visual plane the flowers are both rooted and extending from. This pool of water adds to the etheriality of the arrangement, while still representing the piece’s connection to its natural conditions and life force.

Important Tips and Tools

A Florists holding a maroon flower.

Scissors are a very essential tool to this art form and should be cleaned before and after use. When ready to begin one must cut the base of the flower stem at an angle, which makes it easier to insert and stabilize the branch.Bonsai scissors with golden handle.

If your flower stem is too delicate to attach to the kenzan’s brass needles, a simple trick is to cut another flower’s stem that is slightly larger and insert the smaller stem into the other. This allows a base for your delicate stem to fasten to the sharp teeth with support. If the branch’s base is too thick to fit smoothly into the kanzan, simply shave away parts of the base with a pair of sharp scissors.

Kenzan’s come in many different sizes and one flower frog is to be used per arrangement. When working with organic material that is submerged in water for long periods of time, it is important to clean and dry your Kenzan after use to make sure it is free of debris. When you don’t have a Kenzan, a ball of chicken wire that is weighted down by stones can also make a successful support system for your flowers.Landscape artwork, Japanese painting.

Floral putty usually comes on a roll and can be found at your local flower or craft shop. Depending on your arrangement’s size you may use floral putty to adhere the kenzan to the suiban (dish). This should be adhered to a dry kenzan and bowl, as you will be adding the water once your Ikebana is complete. To remove, simply rub with cooking oil to release the two pieces.A lighted lotus scented candle.

Heat can be used to bend stiff branches by gently bending the rigid materials over a candle flame and when the desired shape is created, immediately plunge in cold water until completely cool and set. If there are visible burn marks make sure to hide them from the viewer’s eye.A flower arranged in wooden bowl.

How Can I Create My Own Ikebana Arrangement at Home?

What you will need:

-Desired branches, flowers, and grasses
-Fresh water
-A Suiban shallow dish or bowl
-Floral putty
-A Kenzan or chicken wire and stones.

A florist cutting a stem of a rose.

Below are five simple steps to create your own Ikebana arrangement in your style of choice.

1) Step One
Peel off the desired amount of floral putty depending on the size of your Kenzan and adhere it to the bottom of your flower frog and your Suiban. Depending on the composition you desire your Kenzan can be placed in the center of the dish or to one side.A golden kenzan and it's reflection.

2) Step Two
Once the putty is in place you may begin to cut your flowers and branches, cutting on an angle or depending on the thickness of your stem.A yellow tulips attached in a kenzan.

 

3) Step Three
Place your flowers starting with the three main branches, shin (“truth”), soe (“supporting”), and nagashi (“flowing”) starting from the tallest to the smallest in three different heights.

A man cutting a stem of a plant using cutting shear.

4) Step Four

Fill in the areas surrounding the three main branches for a Rikka style arrangement, bending and positioning your arrangement to be alive and active vrs. stagement. This will take some time to learn how to arrange according to your chosen material, but continue to breathe and try new compositions and moods.A women arranging a flowers using tools.

5) Step Five
Fill your suiban with water that levels to a few millimeters below the edge of your dish or at the very least just above your kenzan’s teeth. The flowers arranged in an Ikebana style do tend to last a long amount of time as there is minimal amount of stem being submerged in water, deterring it from rot. Due to the small amount of stem being placed under water it is important to add water when needed.A pink flower attached in a kenzan and pink petals.

5) Step Five
Enjoy!

Ikebana: The Way of Flowers

Today, the word kado, meaning “way of flowers” is the preferred word for Ikebana. In Japan it is believed this meaning captures the art form’s spirit as a lifelong path to understand and grow with the flowers. It is important when wanting to create your own Ikebana arrangement to understand its complex rich history and the compositional lines which make up the style you would like to create.

Remember to give feeling to the plants and understand their shapes and characteristics. Some flowers can be bent and forced into the shape you would desire, but consider looking at the materials in front of you and how they compositionally flow together. An imaginary line from the tip of the shin to the very bottom should be perpendicular to the rim of the vase.

Each leaf may appear symmetrical, but you will be surprised when investigating closer. On either side of the leaf’s vein is both yin (the narrower side) and yang (the wider side). When arranging, choose the wider side to be showcased toward the front of the arrangement and the smaller side to the foreground.

Something to consider: the importance of space is to know not only to fill it, but to find power in its emptiness.