What Is Ikebana?

The Art of Japanese Flower Arranging

Ikebana arrangement on patio table
Fran Gealer/The Image Bank/Getty Images

If you’ve ever placed a single flower stem in a vase and admired the simplicity of your design, you will appreciate the clean lines and understated beauty of ikebana flower arrangements. The art of ikebana can make converts out of people who once thought flower arrangements were too fussy or feminine for their home or office.

Ikebana History

Ikebana has its roots in 6th century Buddhism practice in Japan. Just as sympathy flowers are an integral part of many cultures today, the Buddhists believed that one should offer flowers to the spirits of the deceased to honor Buddha. This was the responsibility of temple priests, who gradually turned these offerings into an art form.

The word Ikenobo is used so frequently in context of ikebana discussions that newcomers to the art might think the terms are synonymous. In fact the word Ikenobo refers to the Japanese description of a lakeshore. A Kyoto priest who resided on a lakeshore was so renowned for his ikebana designs that he became a teacher for all who wanted to master this art. In 1545, the Ikenobo school of ikebana was established, which laid down the fundamentals of rikka ikebana design still being practiced today.

Ikebana Flower and Plant Materials

It makes sense that many flowers and plants with native Asian heritage are valued in ikebana design. Some of these flowers have special significance for Japanese festivals. For example, the iris is used in ikebana designs for the celebration of Boys’ Festival on May 5th, and the chrysanthemum naturally predominates during the Chrysanthemum Festival on September 9th.

Other flowers favored in ikebana designs include the camellia, tree peony, and narcissus. As in Western flower arrangements, leafy greens and stems provide a calming foil for the vibrancy of flowers, so expect to see bamboo grass and leaves, pine branches, willow, and other foliar elements in the arrangements.

Ikebana Supplies

If you’ve dabbled in floral arranging before, you will find that many of the same or similar tools and materials are used in ikebana. In addition to fresh flowers and foliage, there are three essentials that any ikebana artist should have on hand to create basic arrangements :

  1. Vases and Containers: Ikebana containers come in many styles, but glass, ceramic, and lined bamboo baskets are popular choices. Vases and containers may be tall and narrow, or very shallow, depending on the style of ikebana that is practiced and the plant materials used.
  2. Kenzan: The Japanese term for a flower frog is kenzan. This refers to a series of pins, affixed to a flat disk or mat, that hold flower and plant stem in place. Think of kenzan as the Japanese substitute for floral foam. Kenzan is especially important in ikebana designs that use shallow containers.
  3. Scissors or Shears: Traditional ikebana scissors have large teardrop-shaped handles and stout, thick blades suitable for slicing cleanly through thick twigs or snipping delicate blossoms.

Some ikebana artists use floral wire to bind flower stems together or to support spindly flower stems. Small decorative stones or marbles are used to hide the kenzan in transparent vases or shallow containers.

Ikebana Styles

Most ikebana arrangements fall into one of three basic design categories. Moribana uses a flat container, kenzan, and usually multiple blooms. Nageire features three plant groupings that loosely form a triangle. Shoku has an upright or vertical arrangement, often in a tall vase. Ikebana arrangements that don’t follow any explicit rules may be termed freestyle.

Learning Ikebana

Although there is much more to this art form than casually placing a few stems in a container, creating simple ikebana arrangements is possible with some beginning instruction. The ikebana hobbyist may start by reading some books on ikebana or watching instructional videos.