101: Ikebana

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Ikebana is known as the art of Japanese flower arranging. But it is directly translated as the arrangement of plant materials, meaning the artist is not limited only to the showy and colorful blooms of traditional Western florists. Ikebana began as ancient monks offered flowers at temples, in much the same way that bonsai developed as a discipline. We now recognize the minimalist style and its influences everywhere. The arrangements express poetry, emotion, and aesthetic appreciation. And they are also meant to mirror natural ways, where symmetry and perfect balance are eschewed.
Many rules govern the true schools of Ikebana, including dictating the height of the stems, the types of containers, and even the angles at which stems can be placed. This is because Ikebana is a discipline, historically practiced by the samurai. It is my belief that these rules are important, but do not let them intimidate you. The benefits of working with plants and flowers can still be had for the novice. Flowers will always enhance the home, and with Ikebana, they enhance your artistic soul.


Flowers irises, dahlias, hydrangeas, cymbidium orchids
Greenery and branches redwood, bear grass, fern, curly willow, lichen
Utility scissors
Large clippers
Fiskars Floral Snips
pinholder type, cage type, or pottery type (pictured left to right below)
Measuring stick
Assorted containers
Spring water



Moribana Meaning “piled up.” These arrangements are designed in wide, shallow containers. There are two common styles of Moribana: upright and slanting.
Nagerie Meaning “thrown in.” Nagerie arrangements are made in tall, narrow vases. As with Moribana, there can be upright and slanting Nagerie.
Kenzan The tool used to support stems inside the container. The pinholder tool is the most commonly used, and generally has a weighted base with dozens of sharp pins sticking upwards. The branch or stem is pressed into the kenzan, and the pins hold it in place. Traditionally kenzan are never secured to the base of the container with anything other than natural plant matter or weights, meaning no glue, no floral tape, no putty.
Shin, Soe, and Hikae In the Sogestu School of Ikebana, the rules upon which this article is loosely based, shin, soe, and hikae are the terms for the 3 main pieces of an arrangement. Shin is the longest branch, and represents heaven; soe is the medium branch and represents man; and hikae is the shortest and represents the Earth.
Jushi Jushi are any flowers or leaves that do not make up the 3 main placements. They are meant to complement the shin, soe, and hikae. Add as many jushi as you like, but only in odd numbers.


1. Flowers and other plant materials are the foundation of any design, and they can be either gathered or purchased. Once you have them indoors, give all of the flowers a fresh cut underwater, at an angle. Remove any leaves that are damaged or that will be under the surface of the water. There are many tricks said to prolong the life of flowers, but I believe that fresh spring water and storing the flowers properly is all that is needed. Keep the stems in only a few inches of water, and try to change or top off the water daily. Store the flowers away from direct light, drafts, and heat.
2. The next element of the design is the container. Containers are secondary to the flowers; they should complement the arrangement without overpowering the image. The colors of the flowers and leaves should be in harmony with the container.
3. These pieces of art are not just flowers thrown into a vase. They are painstakingly placed into a frog, or kenzan. Familiarize yourself with the kenzan. The traditional type used in Ikebana is a pinholder, which is available in many different gauges and thicknesses. Practice cutting flower stems and setting them onto the pins. Often a top-heavy flower will overturn the kenzan. Getting the flower to stand takes patience, but is easily learned. Cage-type kenzan are useful for thicker branches and stems that are very wide.
4. Before you begin to make your arrangement, let the flowers inspire you. Their form might suggest a season, a landscape, or a haiku. Finding this direction and letting the form of the blossom or stem guide you is the heart of Ikebana. Don’t get caught up in the flowers themselves, rather let your mind flow with the feelings that your branches and flowers evoke. Often the awkward bend in the branch is the most beautiful part, but you might have to remove leaves or offshoots to see it.
Conventional beauty and colors are the Western way, but the art of Ikebana requires you to look beyond what is on the surface. This is the time where you really begin to feel a love of flowers and natural worlds. Creating a vignette that expresses your emotions is powerful, but the creation is more important. When a branch won’t stand straight in the frog, you have to learn to change your approach. If you cut a stem too short, you’ve got to go back to the beginning and rework everything. Force yourself to stay true to your vision, but be adaptable.

How to Place a Stem into a Pinholder Kenzan

1. Once you have decided on a design, re-cut any flowers that you want to stand straight up bluntly, instead of on the diagonal. This will help them sit in the frog.
2. If the design calls for the branch or stem to lean to the left, cut it slanting towards the left. If the branch should lean to the right, cut it slanting towards the right. If you are placing branches upright in a cage kenzan, cut them up their stems about 3cm to allow them to better intake water.
3. One rule dictates the placement of the kenzan itself: never in the center of the container.


Bear grass and dahlias with a pincushion kenzan in a container 1.5″ deep.
1. Make 3 bundles of bear grass: one with 3 blades, one with 5 blades, and one with 7 blades. Tie each bundle into a simple knot.
2. Hikae: Cut the bundle with 3 blades to 5″. Press it into the left side of the kenzan, so that it tilts at an angle of 10°.
3. Soe: Cut the bundle with 5 blades to 8″. Press the blades into the kenzan so that they overhang the container at an angle of 20°.
4. Shin: Cut the last bundle with 7 blades to 12″. Because of the length of this piece of the design, it is difficult to secure at the proper angle. The solution is to tightly wrap a length of bear grass around the bottom of the bundle. Secure it, and then press the whole mass into the kenzan, so the shin stands at an angle of 30°.
5. Jushi: The 3 dahlias are the jushi. Cut the first dahlia stem to 1″ and add it to the arrangement.
Cut the second to 1.5″, and the third to 2″. Add them carefully, and face the tallest towards the sky.


Irises with redwood shoots, in a cage kenzan covered with lichen, sitting on an almost flat steel dish.
1.Cut 3 redwood shoots, one to each of the following length: 20″, 16″, and 13″. These are the shin, soe, and hikae.
2.Select 3 irises. I chose one that was barely open, one that was almost all the way open, and one in full bloom. They are the jushi. Cut the first iris, preferably the one just beginning to bloom, to 3″. Cut the second, more open than the first, to a length of 5″. Cut the third, fully blooming iris to 7″.
3. Place the cage kenzan to the side of the container, and insert the 3 redwood shoots upright in the back of the kenzan. You will need to put them into the kenzan all the way to the bottom, so that their height can be supported. Set them so they fan out, with the hikae furthest to the left at 15°, the soe in the center at 5°, and the shin on the right at 10°.
4. Now add the irises. Put the shortest one in first, in the front-facing side of the cage. The bud will be short and plump, so gently press it into the cage until it is secure.
Now add the second tallest iris, pointing up slightly from the first. And the third will go into the cage closest to the redwood, standing nearly straight up, just barely angled out.
5. Cover the entire kenzan with lichen. It serves to hold moisture in the shallow dish, as well as adds an aesthetic solution to the shallow plate.


Hydrangeas with sword fern in a pinholder set into a low vase 3″ deep.
1. Cut 3 white hydrangeas, one representing each stage of growth: bud, opening flower, and full blooming.
2. Trim their leaves, but as you do this, look for lines. Certain leaves will complement the design, while others will make it seem out of balance. Cut each leaf as close as you can to the stem. The sharp blades of Fiskars Floral Snips make it the perfect tool for doing this. They let you cut the leaf with great precision.
3. The hydrangea bud will be the shin; cut it to 12″. The soe will be the opening flower, and its length will be 8″. The biggest, fully open flower will be placed as the hikae. Cut its stem to 1″.
4. Set the hikae in first, just shy of the middle of the kenzan.
Then add the soe, letting the flower stem curve towards the left. The shin is added last, curving to the right, away from the center, then leaning back towards the left.
5. The fern is placed last; it is the jushi. Set it in such a way that it is parallel to the tabletop, leaning to the left. If you do not have a fern or any other greenery with a bent stem, set what you have in the kenzan so that it leans, but try to avoid resting it on the vase.


Cymbidium orchids with curly willow in a 13″ tall vase filled with marbles.
1. Fill a tall and narrow vase 1/2 way full of marbles.
2. This arrangement has only shin and hikae. The hikae is a sturdy branch of cymbidium, 19″ tall, and should have a line that curves towards the left.
Put it in the vase leaning towards the left at a 15° angle. Press the stem into the marbles for stability.
3. The shin is laden with more flowers, leaning towards the right, and is cut to 23″. Set it in the vase at a 15° angle, leaning right.
4. Select an interesting branch of curly willow.
Put it in the vase so that it is almost parallel with the shin, but leans off to the left, behind the hikae.

Photography by Nat Wilson-Heckathorn

About the Author:
Brookelynn Morris is a craft author and skateboarding flower lover living in Northern California. She is eagerly anticipating May 19th, which will mark the release of her first book, Feltique (Potter Craft), a complete guide to felt-making in all its forms.

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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at snowgoli@gmail.com or via @snowgoli.

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