Sculpted Blooms: The Basics of Ikebana

If you’ve ever seen an ikebana arrangement, you know it’s not exactly like the elaborate floral arrangements you’re used to seeing at weddings. In fact, you would be forgiven for thinking there’s not much to arrange there at at all. Ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arranging, an artform that dates back to the 7th century when households would leave flower offerings at altars. Ikebana is about more than just putting flowers in a container: it’s a disciplined technique in which nature and humanity come together to embody balance, harmony, and stillness in the home. But ikebana doesn’t have to be precious. Or even remotely extravagant. While the arrangements are always beautiful, the true art of ikebana is more about the experience of building than the final product. With just a few chosen branches, a small bunch of sprigs, and a selection of flowers, ikebana is a minimalist alternative to the often overwhelming world of traditional floral arrangements.

For Mary Jane Risch, ikebana is a passion that has blossomed for over 20 years. A member of the International Ikebana Society, she is trained in the founding school of ichiyo, which has hundreds of chapters around the world. After decades of practice, exhibiting, and teaching, she travels to Japan this season to be officially recognized as a master of ikebana. Before jetting off, she stopped by the Rikumo store to create a beautiful arrangement and give us a few tips on how to make a simple, effortless ikebana arrangement of our own.  

Consider the Occasion
Although Ikebana is a year-round tradition, consider the message you want to send when crafting your arrangement. Just like red roses stand for romantic love and lilies are best left for funerals, each component of the arrangement can have its own (often surprising) meaning. “My teacher used to get camellia branches for us to use, because the leaves are so nice,” says Mary Jane, “Sometimes they would have buds or flowers that were starting to open, but they would always fall off, which is why if you made a flower arrangement for a samurai going off to war you would never use camellias because the heads fall off, and that gives a bad message.” Ikebana is not restricted to a particular kind of flower, but it’s smart to find sturdy, long-lasting branches like Salmon Quince or bamboo, and stick to seasonal flowers if you can.

Keep It Seasonal  

Foraging for branches and leaves during an outdoor hike or walk is a great way to find seasonal, sturdy materials. Keep an eye out for shade plants like Solomon’s Seal, which have a naturally graceful curve and last for a long time. For our arrangement, Mary Jane selected some sturdy Italian ruscus leaves from her own backyard. “It’s wonderful stuff,” says Mary Jane. “I would recommend this as a go-to. It just lasts and lasts. You may need to change the flowers as time passes, but the leaves may still be fine.” After bending the ruscus at an angle, she added a few sprigs of craspedia, a pom-pom looking flower that shot straight up in the air. “I’m going to put a bunch of these here to balance the movement of [the arrangement]” she explained as she selectively placed a few into the vase, “You don’t want it to look like it’s going to tip over.”

Don't Be Afraid to Simplify

Think of your ikebana arrangement as a sculpture. Take a good, careful look at your arrangement as you build it, and don’t be afraid to cut away small leaves and branches that disrupt your flow.  The real art of ikebana is not about picking what flowers or branches to add but about what to leave off. “You can take things off that interfere and serve no purpose,” says Mary Jane, “There’s always extra stuff that needs to come off. If you use a small vase like this, a quarter of it would be completely filled. Then you get to the point where you start jamming stuff in. You don’t want to choke it. Cutting things away is something to get used to, but you want to have it be a little more free, a little more careful.”

Keep your Stems hydrated

To keep your arrangement alive for as long as possible, try this trick: take a flower stem at its base and cut twice at an angle, making an “x” mark. A fresh cut on flower stems will expose more surface to the water and let the arrangement live longer. As for general upkeep, the simpler the better. “Just give it water,” says Mary Jane.

Strategically Conceal Your Steps

You can add height and dimension to your ikebana by strategically cutting a few branches or flowers at a lower height than the rest and arranging them in a layered formation. To conceal the sharp, uneven edges of the cut stems, use a ceramic vase like our Hanako Concave Vase, and avoid glass vessels.  

Find a Local Teacher

Before committing to a specific ikebana school, make sure you center in on a type that fits you. Ikebana is a craft that is meant to be mastered over time, so it’s best to find a school you like and commit as opposed to bouncing around from school to school. The dedicated Ikebana student sticks with one school and one teacher for their entire lives, so make sure you find someone local that you can get along with.

Keep a Few Shortcuts Handy

For those of us who struggle to keep alive a Valentine's Day bouquet for more than a day, Mary Jane left us with a great tip. To keep roses from drooping down, she recommends wrapping them in newspaper, giving them a fresh “X” cut, and putting the stems in boiling water for about 20 minutes. Flowers droop because there are air bubbles trapped inside the stems that prevent the water from going up, so it’s important to clear those airways when you see the head start to drop. Once the bubbles come out, plunge them in cold water and watch as the buds perk right up.

Thanks to Mary Jane for her tips and the beautiful arrangement! Learn more about the art of ikebana and find your dream school at the Ikebana International Society.