While some of Japan’s most traditional strains of flower symbolism have mellowed out in modern times, it seems one floral tradition is making a comeback: the art of Japanese flower arranging, or ikebana. While we’re fans of flower arranging in all forms – as long as it’s done with care – we have to admit that if you’re looking for some Insta-worthy floral art, ikebana has got the goods.
Modern viewers might describe a typical ikebana arrangement as minimalist or precise, but that simplicity masks a whole universe of meaning. In fact, ikebana practitioners see it as a way to distill the beauty of the entire natural world through the elements of a single arrangement. Literally meaning “flowers kept alive,” this Japanese flower arranging tradition is as much about the process as the finished product.
So what exactly is an ikebana artist trying to achieve through that act of arranging flowers? Generally, this tradition is all about reflecting harmony and balance between opposing elements – for example, between life and decay (think a withered flower and a new bloom in the same arrangement), or between extravagance and simplicity.
History of Ikebana
Ikebana first arose from floral offerings left at Buddhist temples over 600 years ago, evolving through many iterations into a secular art form. In early years, the Japanese flower arranging style known as tatehana, or “standing flowers,” dominated ikebana in religious and political spaces, becoming so extravagant and regulated that the more simplified, free-spirited style of nageire, or “flowers thrown in,” was developed as a reaction around the 16th century.
Early ikebana branched into different schools, the first of which, Ikenobo, became prominent enough to be simplified and adopted as a popular hobby for upper-class women during the 19th century. Later the Ohara school developed, and both are still practiced today, while artists outside of the traditional schools have adopted elements of ikebana in their own arrangements.
Common Elements of an Ikebana Arrangement
As mentioned, flower symbolism takes on a whole other life in ikebana: it’s not just about the plants, but also everything else, including the container and even the space not occupied by flowers. As such, there is an emphasis on mixed materials – another reflection of ikebana’s focus on reflecting the beauty of all components of the natural world working in harmony. Ikebana practitioners don’t just use flowers and greenery, but also twigs, moss, stones, and even fruit.
Duality is also a prominent element of ikebana. That means typical pieces are all about the relationships, balance, and tensions between opposing forces: life and death, full and empty space, and extravagance and simplicity.
The classic simplified Ikenobo style that became popular in the 19th century is what gives shape to the arrangements many people think of when (or if!) they think about ikebana. Ikenobo arrangements typically consist of elements in three “levels” representing the tensions between heaven, earth, and man.
Modern Ikebana: Try Your Hand
Today, both traditional ikebana and ikebana-inspired art tend to showcase natural processes, thoughtful use of empty spaces, and even “flaws” in the natural world, rather than creating beauty through the selection of perfect specimens or artificial symmetry.
If you’re anything like us, you’re all about the DIY spirit. So if you’re itching to crank up the ikebana-inspo in your next flower arrangement, we’re rooting for you! Here’s what you’ll need to consider:
- The style: Will you go for the more traditional “standing” style, or elements loosely thrown in? Check out some different frameworks and what they will look like from different angles.
- The materials: Get with the ikebana spirit and don’t limit yourself to flowers and greenery. Throw in some rocks or moss too! As for your chosen flowers, take inspiration from flower symbolism to match a theme, or just go with the flow of what you find most aesthetically appealing.
- The container: In keeping with the ikebana tradition of creating harmony in a space, you’ll want to deliberately choose a container that works aesthetically or spacially with your chosen materials.
While we’d never knock traditional Western flower arrangements – our Bouqs are all about arranging flowers with care no matter your style! – we can’t deny the appeal of a flower arranging tradition that’s all about working with, not against, nature. In fact, we strive for just that with our seasonal, sustainable, farm-to-table Bouqs. See for yourself!Shop All