Ikebana Styles

Ikebana Styles

Ikebana – the art of Japanese Flower Arrangement

Many of our well-known flowers came originally from the East (and some of our best known designs of china vases too). In China, the art of flower arranging was an important part of life, and of religion. Extremely simple in appearance, each flower arrangement was intended to present the viewer with just one or two beautiful objects to contemplate completely (a mass of flowers was felt to be spiritually indigestible), and each flower was considered to be a perfect microcosm of all life. Further, Buddhists believe all life, including plant life, is sacred, and that to squander cut flowers is wrong. Modern ecologists would sympathize with this view (and so would anyone who finds the price of florists’ flowers rather daunting, in the winter particularly).

Ikebana the Japanese style, is still taken very seriously, with ‘grand masters’ teaching it in special colleges. A lot of religious symbolism is involved, as well as strict rules about adhering to nature’s ways. For instance, a flower must never be placed higher than a tree branch nor a mountain plant lower than a field one. And no one should do a flower arrangement while tense or depressed, the experts say.

Ikebana 30 mar 10 (2)

Ikebana 30 mar 10 (2) (Photo credit: PaRaP)

To be really skilled in Ikebana, you need to attend a course. But even without doing so the general look of oriental flower arrangement can be appreciated and to some extent reinterpreted for the home. There are few limits to the kind of flowers which can be used for Ikebana, but here are some very characteristic combinations: Pine branches with Camellias, Azalea branches with white Chrysanthemums, Hosta leaves with Peony heads, Easter Lilies with Pussy Willow, Cherry blossom boughs with Monstera leaves, Irises with Water Lilies.

How to use containers in Ikebana

For Ikebana you will need two kinds of containers – a shallow, horizontal bowl for Moribana style and a tall vase for Nageire style. The three main stems in Moribana and Nageire arrangements are generally known as Heaven (Shin), Man (Soe), and Earth (Hikae or Tai). The Shin is the longest and most prominent line, Soe is the medium and Hikae the shortest line. Additional branches or flowers (jushi) are added only after these three have been placed. The pin holder or Kenzan (which must always be covered) is usually placed asymmetrically and the numbers of bran-ches are deliberately used in odd numbers to avoid the predictability of symmetry. In the same way the jushi are of varying lengths, always shorter than the main stem. The length of the main stems depend on the size of the container. For a small arrangement the Shin is the size of the width and depth of the container, Soe is three quarters of the Shin and, Hikae is three quarters of Soe. For a medium arrangement the Shin is the size of the width of the container plus the depth and up to half as much again. Soe is three quarters of Shin. Hikae is three quarters of Soe. In a large arrangement the Shin is twice the size of the width of the container plus the depth. Soe is three quarters of Shin and Hikae is one half of Soe. These measurements apply to both Moribana and Nageire arrangements – except that in Nageire the measurements are for the length of the stems above the rim of the container.

Basically the three main stems are placed at certain angles. These angles are measured from an imaginary vertical line coming from the place when the Shin branch is put in the Kenzan. The tips of the main branches should be at 10°, 45° or 75° from the upright zero. As long as the tips of the branches maintain the angle they can be in any direction on the plane.

English: a kenzan with some stalks, put into a...

Image via Wikipedia

Just as the western flower arrangement scene has-become changed through the centuries, so has this classic and ancient style undergone certain modifications. Currently the imagination of many western arrangers is captured by Ikebana. But this word means simply, ‘keeping cut flowers alive in water’. This is basic Japanese flower arrangement, and indeed any other kind. But at the moment it – is interpreted by a host of schools and teachers in many ways. Some examples are far removed from the original classical concept. Even so Ikebana today is still based on certain elements of mysticism. Some exponents like to indulge in formal etiquette and the ritual procedures.

Not all those who enjoy the Ikebana styles of arrangement wish to embrace Japanese concepts nor to call the tools of their hobby by foreign names. Yet they see this style as eminently suitable for their purpose even when it is approached in a western manner. And so it is. If you have been inhibited from trying oriental arrangements because you feared that it was far too complicated for you, do appreciate that many people take as few minutes over making one of these arrangements as there are flowers in their container. It is a very simple matter to fit Ikebana into a busy contemporary life; you need no philosophy, no periods of contemplation or meditation, just the sound common sense that inspired the movement in the first place.

But so that you can judge for yourself whether or not a little mysticism is worthwhile, here are the fundamental rules of ancient Japanese flower arrangement.

Symbol of heaven: The basic shape is an irregular triangle which is formed by three stems known as shushi. It is permissible to use more than three stems and these additional stems are known as jushi, but they should always be under the domination of the three main stems. These are said to signify heaven, earth and man, and are known as shin, soe and hikai.

Shin is of the greatest importance and is always the tallest. Ideally, and following the classic interpretation, this stem should be curved, a quality not always to be found if one has to rely on bought, uniform flowers. Its tip should always be over its base. This is an example of the solid good sense of these rules, for if the arranger sees that the tallest stem stands this way it can lead only to a well-balanced design.

Sometimes, and especially if the arranger has been able to select and gather the materials rather than buy them, a stem will be very curving. It is still possible to arrange it so that it is allowed to undulate, yet its tip must return to base. Often to follow this rule all that is necessary is simply a matter of arranging the lower part of the stem well away from the vertical.

In Japanese arrangements many stems are artificially induced to assume the correct curves.

Ikebana Japanese art of flower arrangement,

Ikebana - Japanese flower arranging

Earth and man: The soe is the stem next in importance. This should always be placed to the side of the main stem and the two should appear to rise together from the surface of the water. After a while we follows an independent course. It should never be more than two-thirds the height of the main stem.

Hikai, as befits man, assumes a lowly position in this floral trinity. This short stem should be one-third the length of the second stem. It should flow forward, thus giving the arrangement a third dimension. However, it should not assume a drooping position and should never be allowed to rest on the rim of the container.

There are practical reasons for this, for by so doing one ensures that a siphon is never formed. This can be a nuisance and it is easy to cause a siphon without realising what is happening. Should there be a woolly leaf in the arrangement, half in water and half out, it will act as a wick, transferring the water over the rim and emptying the container drip by drip. This is one reason why in all kinds of arrangements one should strip the foliage from the portion of stem which is to go under water.

The additional stems

The jushi should always be added last if they are used at all. Usually three or five are sufficient. They are said to symbolise water, fire, wood, metal and the soil. These stems must always be shorter.

Great emphasis is laid on the importance of water in the container. This is considered to be an integral part of any arrangement because it represents the soil or earth from which the plants grew in the first place. Because of this in Japanese arrangements many vessels are used in which the water is plainly visible. At one time this was one of the greatest differences between western and oriental arrangements. Now a collection of shallow containers is a part of every keen flower arranger’s equipment.

It is also important that the stem ends, though not their bases, are visible. They should flow close together as they rise from the water. This is said to symbolise the manner in which a plant springs from the soil. Obviously this means that stem-holders must be both efficient and inconspicuous, or capable of being made so; fortunately there is a wide range of holders on the market. It also means that stems must sometimes be pruned, shaped or coaxed so that they follow the required line.

Ikebana arrangement

Ikebana Flower Arrangement

Special bases: The finished arrangement should always stand on a base. There are many truly lovely Japanese objects made for this purpose, some of them collectors’ pieces. Here once again is evidence of common sense. Often condensation will be formed under a water-filled container if this is not absolutely waterproof and this damp would damage the furniture. However, apart from its original purpose, the base in an oriental arrangement has become an integral part of the whole.

Those who would like to adopt the custom for use with modern western arrangements (and there is much to commend it) will find that many everyday objects make splendid bases, mats and trays and even teapot stands among them. It is also possible to buy specially-made bases from shops which supply Ikebana enthusiasts.

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