By Jill Brooke

Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging that emphasizes form and balance and dates back to the 7th century, seems to be having a moment. The style, which translates as “way of flowers,” instructs its devoted practitioners to follow strict rules: first, to use only seasonal greenery and flowers in all arrangements, and second, to create floral landscapes that convey feelings and emotions about life. Ikebana is, indeed, rooted in a spiritual way to look at flowers. 

Floral Design by Holly Carlisle

In the past, ikebana, which has style-specific schools—including Ikenobo, Sogetsu, Ryusei-ha and Ohara—wasn’t as embraced by mainstream florists because it tends to be quite minimalist. “The idea is to see the water in the vase, have lots of air in the arrangement and be respectful of this moment of time seasonally,” explains Holly Carlisle, owner of Rosegolden, a floral design studio in Birmingham, Ala. “It’s not the British-styled lush arrangements. 

Cultural undercurrents are certainly contributing to ikebana’s uptick in serendipity. Not only do many consumers prefer a modern home design approach—thank you, RH (you know, the rebrand name of Restoration Hardware)—but because of the pandemic, people are caring about philosophy and calm, two pillars of ikebana design. Furthermore, the seasonal-only demands of ikebana also resonates with the sustainability movement, adding to its popularity.

“Minimal arrangement is extremely dynamic and takes an incredible amount of thought and harmonious intention,” says Carlisle. 

Design by Holly Carlisle

So, what are the elements of an ikebana arrangement? This is a sore subject to many practitioners, who insist that schooling is required before claiming an expertise. That said, following are elements to think about. 

Ikebana asks artists to incorporate flowers that represent the cycles of life—past, present and future. Or, as Beverly Hashimoto, president of Ikebana International New York Chapter #7, corrects me, “yesterday, today and tomorrow.”

In the arrangement by Marie Jeanne Lemarquis, from the Sogetsu discipline, which is more avant-garde, the Clematis stamens survive representing the past. “A bud that has not bloomed can represent the future,” adds Hashimoto. Obviously, the present is a flower that is in full bloom.

Hashimoto’s arrangement uses dried Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower) seed heads to represent the past of summer. Because the arrangement is a glorious look to fall, Hashimoto used mums and cockscomb Celosia in autumnal hues. “Instead of greenery, I used burning-bush Euonymus, various maples and a persimmon branch,” she explains.

Another important element of ikebana is its focus on vertical heights as part of its messaging. In ancient Japan, there would be small alcoves in homes that were ideal for these styled flower arrangements, which are what started this focus.

Nature must always be a focal point. “Emptiness also has its beauty,” explains Noritaka Noda, a master practitioner of Ikenobo, the most classic and oldest school under the ikebana umbrella. “A branch that extends beyond the horizon expresses continuity.”

Then, there is the debate over the use of wire in ikebana arrangements. Some ikebana disciplines/schools, such as Sogetsu and Ryusei-ha, allow the use wire to create an art form while others, including Ikenobo, forbid its use or, at the very least, require that it be hidden.

Another lesson to learn from ikebana philosophy is that one doesn’t need many flowers to create beauty. Often, with just four or five flowers, one can create something memorable. Ingrid Carozzi, owner of Tin Can Studios, a floral design firm in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., and author of Flowers by Design, incorporated an ikebana arrangement in her book. 

“Ikebana-inspired arrangements are wonderful because they can fill a table without using too many flowers,” Carozzi says. “The varying heights in this style of flower arrangement also allows each individual bloom to shine.”

Last, but not least, ikebana teaches to value not only the flower in full bloom but also the one in decay. If a petal happens to fall into the water, then so be it. It’s part of the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi—that there is beauty in impermanence and imperfection—and even decay, since it is a cycle of life.

Of course, in ikebana flower arranging, imperfection is assembled in harmonious ways to look perfectly lovely.

“ … there is beauty in impermanence and imperfection—and even decay, since it is a cycle of life.”