Gardening Rx > The Art of Spring Flower Arranging

The Japanese art of flower arranging is called ikebana, which literally translates to “living flowers.” Created with branches, leaves and a few flowers, less is more. Emphasis is on line rather than color, simplicity rather than abundance. Even the use of empty space is a necessary part of the composition, inviting the viewer to finish the unfinished. Like other forms of Japanese art, ikebana is highly symbolic, utilizing the three lines of an asymmetrical triangle to represent heaven, man and earth. Although plants are arranged according to strict rules of placement, ikebana reinforces our connection with nature by focusing on respect for the unique qualities of each material used.

One of the earliest styles of ikebana is called rikka, which means “standing flowers.” These were very large arrangements, often more than six feet tall, made to symbolize mountains, valleys and streams, and placed in tall bronze urns. Rikka were created by monks only, for use in the temples. By the sixteenth century, most homes had an alcove of honor—called a tokonoma—to display scrolls, ornaments and flowers. The ikebana containers used were smaller but still upright to fit the space, and the more relaxed style of arranging was called nagiere, which means to “throw into.” Since this was more a decorative form than a religious one, women were finally allowed to learn ikebana.

In the 1860s, the moribana style, which means “piled up flowers,” was developed using a shallow, wide container. The water in the container is usually visible, adding another element to the design.

Today, in homes without a traditional tokonoma, ikebana arrangements are placed in the entry to welcome guests. Ikebana has become a form of contemporary art, and arrangements are often found in offices, conference rooms or hotel lobbies.

Ikebana in New Hampshire

Antoinette Drouart, owner of Ikebana Flower in Nashua, lived in Japan for five years, immersing herself in the culture. A translator and interpreter, she studied the language as well as Japanese cooking and ikebana. After completing five years of study at the Sogetsu School in Tokyo, she was certified as a teacher and awarded the Japanese flower name Hooshi, which means “purple iris.” A member of Ikebana International’s Sogetsu Boston branch, Drouart specializes in Japanese flower arrangements and teaches ikebana at her studio.

“Ikebana is an art where living flowers and the spirit of the person arranging them are united to create beauty and form,” says Drouart. “Beginners in a class can start with the same materials but all end up with different arrangements, reflecting their personal taste and creativity. You can tell who did which one.”

Mary Salmon of Amherst took ikebana lessons at the Sharon Arts Center in Peterborough. Even though she has a background in fl oral design, she found ikebana to be a totally different experience. “It is definitely a discipline of observation, so it makes you more visually aware,” Salmon says. “Once you understand the form of the triad, everything falls into place. You are training yourself to work with balance.” She finds ikebana a great way to make beautiful arrangements out of minimal materials.

Learning the art

To learn ikebana, Drouart says, “It is always best to start out with the basics. Even Picasso had to learn rules. Once the basics are embedded, then you can try freestyle.”

She shares these fundamental ikebana techniques from the Sogetsu school with us: The moribana style uses a pintype holder to support the flower stems in an arrangement called a kenzan (or also known among florists as a “frog”). Your container represents the earth so it should be pottery, not plastic. The kenzan is never placed in the middle of the container, but off to one side.

The arrangement will form an asymmetrical triangle. Of the three main elements, the longest piece is called shin. It represents heaven and measures 1½ times the size of the container (diameter plus height). The second longest piece is called soe; it represents man, the mediator between heaven and earth. It is three-quarters the length of shin. Those two elements are usually branches. The third piece, hikae, representing the earth, is always a flower and it is one-half the length of soe. Shin is at the top of the triangle, between 10 degrees and 15 degrees to the left. Soe goes on the left side of the triangle at a 45-degree angle pointing toward your left shoulder. Hikae is on the right, facing your right shoulder at a 75 degree angle.

Flowers always look up to heaven. Branches have a front and back, and you don’t want to see the back of a branch. This is a living sculpture meant to be viewed from three sides.

“You really put your heart and soul into it and have a piece of art when you are finished,” Drouart says. “To bring nature in from outside, we always use seasonal materials. For the spring, flowering branches like plum, cherry, crabapple and forsythia are perfect along with spring bulbs, like tulips, daffodils and hyacinths.” Plants from different seasons or environments are rarely mixed. Some arrangements seek to replicate the rhythm of nature by using buds, flowers, seed pods and bare branches to symbolize the cycle of life.