In fall, a gardener’s thoughts tend to turn toward winding things down. That goes for Florida gardeners as well as northern ones! In fall we do things such as planting cool weather annuals, tending fruit trees, and a heck of a lot of trimming. 


The changing of seasons is also a perfect time to reflect on the Zen principle that everything in the universe is in a constant state of transformation. To a Zen Buddhist, impermanence is taken for granted, and nowhere is impermanence more evident than in a garden. Flowers grow, bloom, and die back. Fruits ripen, then fall to the ground and rot. During a summer of steady rains, the perennial shrubs grow so fast, they need constant pruning! 


Impermanence is one of the important concepts on display in the elegant Japanese art form of ikebana. Other concepts covered in this meditative practice are imperfection and minimalism. Ikebana is a contemplative practice on a par with the ritual of the tea ceremony. It can be both relaxing and expressive, spiritual and secular. Along with calligraphy, ikebana and the tea ceremony are often practiced by Zen Buddhists because these activities are calming and require a certain degree of meditative concentration, according to Tricycle.org. 


Ikebana probably first appeared in Japan around the 7th century, imported from China as an outgrowth of the regular practice of offering flowers to the Buddha. It wasn’t until the 15th century, however, that ikebana began developing into a more ritualized art form. About this time, the 8th shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436–1490), who was a patron of the arts—particularly flower arranging—contributed greatly to the art form by practicing it himself, thus increasing its popularity among the upper classes. In fact, many of Japan’s generals through the ages have been practitioners of ikebana as a method of relaxation. Yoshimasa and his contemporaries even influenced the first codification of basic rules for ikebana.  


Although there have been many schools of ikebana through the ages, all have shared a common goal of honoring nature and respecting the spirit. Each floral arrangement forms a roughly triangular shape which is pleasing to the eye aesthetically, but also has deeper significance: The tallest branch represents heaven, the next highest represents humans, and a small bundle of flowers at the base represents earth. Creative ikebana practitioners can use seasonal and locally sourced materials to create new arrangements within these basic parameters. 




Hayato Nishiyama, who lives in Kyoto, went to art school and joined an ikebana club. Eventually he grew to love botany so much that he gave up art and became a gardener instead. The constant change of seasons inspires his work, as shown in an arrangement featuring autumn-red rowan branches (a gift from a northern friend) set against late-summer purple asters. Another work, showing three small flowers planted in moss—one in bud, one flowering, and one fading—seems to comment on past, present, and future as well as the cyclical nature of time and life. 


Ikebana practitioners seem to prefer to use the flowers and other materials that are native to wherever they live. Emily Thompson, a self-taught floral artist working in Manhattan, often uses such unusual materials as weeds, hairy seed pods, and exotics. She is attempting “to build worlds made of the infinite wealth of nature,” she told The New York Times. One of her arrangements features a twisted, lichen-covered apple-tree branch with decaying leaves and one withered apple, paired with snowy Serena roses. Besides illustrating the contrast and impermanence, the arrangement sparks contemplation about how far that apple branch traveled to get to her hands.   




Ikebana courses may be found at many local schools, and through national and international organizations. You don’t need elaborate materials: a sharp pair of pruners, a kenzan (the pin-covered object we call a “frog”) to hold your materials firmly in place, and a small container. Some ikebana practitioners believe that their art should be practiced in silence; others don’t believe that’s so important. But you might find yourself sinking into a meditative state as you think about what materials to use, gather them from your garden or yard, and work on your arrangement, contemplating the theories that your instructor explains to you. When you are finished with your first ikebana arrangement, you should feel a sense of wholeness as the three points of the triangle of heaven, human, and earth find their balance.  


According to Natalie Cenci, writing for Artsy: “In Japan today, the word kado, meaning ‘way of flowers,’ is the preferred term for ikebana, as it’s believed to more accurately capture the spirit of the art as a lifelong path of learning. The impermanence built into this art, beginning with its dependence on nature’s seasons, lends itself to never-ending exploration and experimentation.” 


Explore the many seasons of ikebana for yourself, and see your garden with new eyes! 



Artsy: What Is Ikebana? The Japanese Art That’s Making a Comeback, by Natalie Cenci 


Tricycle.org: Buddhism for Beginners 


The New York Times: The Rise of Modern Ikebana, by Deborah Needleman 



Written by Patricia Rockwood, Instructor and Staff Writer, Adult & Community Enrichment