Do you think flowers are works of art? Or more particularly, can flowers in a vase be artistic? Today we are going to look at the beautiful, inspiring art of Ikebana, the Japanese style of flower arrangement.

I became interested in this when my niece was living in Japan and took Ikebana lessons as a hobby. It has led her to a career in floristry, now that she is back in Australia.

Ikebana is a disciplined art form based on ancient principles which uses branches, leaves, grasses, flowers and blossoms in a minimalistic style. It aims to express emotion by bringing nature and humanity together.

Branches and flowers are placed at specific angles to represent ten (heaven), chi (earth), and jin (man). The way they’re placed represents the strength, delicacy, and ephemerality of living flowers. The word ikebana comes from ‘ikuru’ – to live and ‘hana’ – flowers: literally ‘living flowers’.1

If you’ve ever placed some flowers in a vase, you may have felt that just plonking them in a vase often doesn’t work. They don’t look “right”. They need to be “arranged”, to be balanced and pay tribute to the colours, shape and form of the component pieces. Arranging flowers to create balance and harmony is a very therapeutic, satisfying activity.

Ikebana takes this to a new level, based on ancient rules and principles. The roots of Ikebana in Japan are believed to trace back to either the native Shinto religion, or the floral offerings in Buddhism, which was imported from China in the 6th century.2

The first known written text on ikebana, called Sendensho, was penned in the 15th century. It provides a thorough set of instructions on how to create arrangements that are appropriate to certain seasons and occasions. In Japanese culture, most native flowers, plants, and trees are embedded with symbolic meaning and are associated with certain seasons, so in traditional ikebana, both symbolism and seasonality are always prioritized.2

The guiding principles of ikebana are as follows:1

Less is more: Where western-style arrangements go for flowers in a vase on mass to make an impact, ikebana goes for structure, space, and minimalism.
Asymmetrical balance: It’s common to see tall branches balanced precariously in ikebana. That’s because it uses a 30/70 balance ratio, rather than the normal 50/50.
It’s much more than just decoration: The art of creating an arrangement leads to self awareness (and happiness!).
In and Yo: Japanese Yin and Yang is about opposites completing one another.
Ephemerality: Ikebana aims to capture the fleeting beauty of things. A lot of ikebana arrangements feature a bud to represent the promise of hope.
Space: Is not just emptiness, but an important part of the design as a whole.

The resulting forms are varied and unexpected, and can range widely in terms of size and composition.

A single carefully placed flower can be just as powerful as an elaborate arrangement that incorporates several different flowers, branches, and other natural objects.2 Even the choice of vase or holder is an important consideration to complete the effect.

There are different schools of ikebana.

First came the rise of the Ikenobo School, in the 15th century. During this time, Ikenobo Senkei gained fame for his skillful floral compositions; today, he is considered the first master of ikebana. The style that Senkei practiced became known as Rikka, which means “standing flowers.” This type of ikebana is made with seven core elements (or sometimes nine), which are a mix of tree branches and two or three flowers and are often very grand.2

Nearly all these creations use something called a kenzan, a sort of heavy lead pincushion to affix stems. This sits in the bottom of the vase or container and enables the various angles and directions to be achieved. They come in various sizes and are relatively inexpensive.

Kenzan are available from florist suppliers

Later came the formation of the second major style of ikebana, known as Nageire, meaning “thrown in". In its early form, Nageire was free of the rules and formality that governed the Rikka style. As the antithesis to Rikka, flowers in Nageire arrangements were not designed to stand upright on their own and were instead placed in tall vases that supported the stems of the flowers.2

Japan was isolated from the rest of the world for over 200 years, until 1868, when the country reopened to foreign trade and exchange. The importation of Western ideas lead to a series of radical changes in all areas of culture, including ikebana.

In 1912, the first modern school of ikebana, the Ohara School, was established. Its founder, Unshin Ohara, introduced the Moribana style, which means "piled-up flowers". There were two major changes from tradition: the incorporation of Western flowers, and the use of a shallow, circular container to make flowers stand upright, with the help of the kenzan.2

At the core of Moribana is a three-stem system, whereby three flowers are almost always fixed to create a triangle. Compositions that do not follow this triangle system are known as Freestyle.2

Freestyle is also used to describe more creative and original approaches to ikebana, where the maker uses their knowledge of form, color and line from previous practice, to develop new arrangements that don’t necessarily adhere to traditions.2

In Japan today, the word kado, meaning “way of flowers”, is the preferred term for ikebana, as it’s believed to more accurately capture the spirit of the art as a lifelong path of learning, exploration and experimentation for ikebanaists.2

So, anyone can ikebana. It’s only limited by your imagination, either following traditional principles or by creating a freestyle work of art! There’s no right or wrong. Cast away your inhibitions and give your self-expression a go! It's realxing and satisfying!

There are lots of books on Ikebana, but here is a short video to give you some quick tips on how to go about it!

With thanks to

  1. Japanahome.com
  2. Wikipedia