The Art of Ikebana: Japanese Flower Arranging

Ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arranging. It means “making flowers alive” and is also known as kado (the way of the flower). Ikebana has a rich and interesting history in Japan and has also become popular in the West.

You can find here a Online Design Tutorial on how to do a western interpretation of Ikebana. In this article, we’ll delve into its origins, its different schools, and the types of flowers commonly associated with ikebana.

What is Ikebana?

Ikebana is a specific practice of arranging flowers that relies heavily on Buddhist philosophy. Most importantly, it’s based on the Buddhist belief of preserving life, so the types of flowers - and even the shape of the vase - dictate how arrangements are made.

Rather than just focusing on the flowers themselves, ikebana acknowledges other areas of the plant, such as the leaves and stems, and carefully considers form through lines and shapes.

It’s often regarded as the meeting of nature and humanity and how one informs the other. Minimalism is common in ikebana, but isn’t exclusive. Often, arrangements may include only a few blossoms with greater emphasis on stems.

As you might expect from such a disciplined style of flower arrangement, the seasons are very important. Not only does this influence the types of flowers used, but it also impacts how they’re arranged.

For example, spring styles might include branches in unusual shapes to symbolise strong winds, and summer styles will often use low, open vases that show more water. This is believed to create a cooling effect in the hot weather.

In short, ikebana is first and foremost a spiritual practice. Anyone who’s spent time arranging flowers will know the act is very calming, and it highlights the link between people and nature.

The History of Ikebana

Ikebana is believed to have started in Japan during the Heian period (794-1185). This is when Buddhism began in the country, and it’s a standard practice to leave flowers at Buddhist altars.

Historians believe the art of flower arranging came to Japan from China when Buddhist priests travelled there for education. In its early stages, it was simply putting flowers in a vase but it quickly became a dedicated art form.

By the 15th century, many flowers had developed symbolic meaning, and this led to ikebana becoming a more dedicated practice. It was still intimately associated with Buddhism but also became a more secular practice; flower arrangers were by now considered artists.

Over the next few centuries, various schools developed that placed different emphasis on artistic elements. By the 19th century, Japanese people began growing Western plants, which led to a specific school, moribana.

Ikebana didn’t really become popular in the West until the 20th century. There is evidence of its practice existing in Europe much further back, but it was growing international communication that led to its rise.

Schools of Ikebana

There are multiple schools of ikebana, each of which practices the art slightly differently. Each school has its own head, known as an iemoto, which is essentially a grand master. These positions regularly pass down through families.

Some of the most notable schools include:

  • Ikenobo, considered to be the original school.

  • Enshu-ryu, which has numerous offshoots.

  • Misho-ryu, which uses isosceles triangles as its base shape.

  • Saga go-ryu, one of the newest schools (founded in 1930) that has roots dating back to the 9th century.

Each school uses different philosophies for arranging that include shapes, flower choices and vase selections. Regardless, though, the main principles of ikebana remain consistent throughout.

Popular Flowers in Ikebana

As you might expect, the types of flowers popular in ikebana vary depending on the school. However, some remain consistent choices and have a long history associated with the art.

These include:

  • Iris

  • Chrysanthemum

  • Camelia

  • Peony

  • Tree narcissus

  • Willow

  • Bamboo grass

  • Pine branches

  • Boxwood

Typically, an ikebana arrangement will contain two or three elements that are carefully chosen to work in unison.

Also, Western arrangements often get a bit more experimental with their foliage choices. You might see everything from monstera leaves and ivy to roses and lilacs. Even so, the main principles of ikebana remain the same.

The symbolism behind these flowers is the same in both the East and the West. It was common for meanings to travel with the flowers, so practitioners across the world generally shared the same understanding of what these flowers meant.

However, one of the key theories behind ikebana is that meaning is derived as much from how the flowers are arranged as it is from which flowers are used. For example, willow branches feature in arrangements when people part (such as leaving home). In these cases, the length of willow branches symbolises how long the journey will be.

The ikebana language of flowers is called hanakotoba. Many of its meanings are consistent with Western symbology, but there are a few differences. Red flowers symbolise morbidity and are often used in funeral arrangements (where Westerners might use lilies).

Also, even numbers are considered unlucky, so you’ll typically find odd numbers of branches and blooms in an ikebana display.

Ikebana Facts

If this hasn’t been interesting enough already, here are some facts about the art of ikebana.

  • Ikebana is an ungendered practice. In the past, samurai did ikebana as a way to relax.

  • The two main types are rikka and shoka. Rikka is standing plants, while shoka is living plants. This dictates how they’re arranged.

  • Ikebana vases usually have large openings at the top to allow for better oxygen circulation. This is believed to help the flowers live longer.

  • Different schools base their arrangements around shapes in nature. These typically include mountains, valleys, and waterfalls. Tall arrangements that point straight up symbolise faith.


Ikebana is a fascinating practice that takes flower arranging to a whole new level. The symbology of flowers is only one of many elements that combine to make displays with a range of implicit meanings.

Luckily, there are now international schools that teach ikebana, so it shouldn’t be difficult for you to get involved if you like the sound of it.