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Ikebana FAQs

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image of Ellen Gordon Allen Memorial Garden

What is ikebana?

Like bonsai, ikebana is an ancient Asian art form. Histories trace its origins to the sixth century A.D. when formal flower arrangements appeared in Buddhist temples. By the 15th century, the Japanese had begun displaying flower arrangements in their homes, and the practice of flowering arranging became associated with specific rules and styles, which were further formalized as schools, each one associated with specific compositional and iconographic objectives:  In “classical” schools, lines and nature are paramount; in some modern schools, individual creativity is more important.

Why is ikebana considered an art?

Ikebana is an art because, like other arts, it has defined principles, methods, and styles. It employs plant materials and, in modern arrangements, non-living elements, to create suggestive artistic pieces. The combination of lines, shapes, textures, and colors produce the same feelings one has in the presence of any work of art. Harmonious relationships between elements and the evocation of nature’s beauty are hallmarks of ikebana.

Generally speaking, ikebana arrangements focus on lines. Traditional styles are based on triangular compositions with three predominate branches or flowers symbolizing heaven, earth, and humankind. Expert arrangers deftly use the natural qualities of stems, leaves, and flowers to build the lines and drama of an arrangement. Avant-garde styles, like other forms of modern art, tend to break the rules. The styles of ikebana are associated with schools that originated under an ikebana master.

How many schools of ikebana exist?

There are over 2,000 schools of ikebana. The following are the largest and most popular:

Ikenobo School
The beauty of a natural landscape (rikka style) and the essential character of a plant’s natural environment (shoka style) are just two of the themes of this classical school.  Founded by a Buddhist priest in the mid-15th century, Ikenobo is the original school of ikebana.

photo of ikebana arrangement (ikenobo)

Ohara School
Influenced by Japan’s opening to the West, Unshin Ohara broke with tradition when he founded this school in the late 19th century. Mr. Ohara created a new container, wide and shallow, to accommodate his new style, called moribana. Today these containers are also used for landscape and Rimpa styles.

photo of ikebana arrangement (ohara)

Sogetsu School
“Anyone can make ikebana, any material can be used, and arrangements can be placed anywhere,” is the motto of this modern school of ikebana, known worldwide for its creative free style arrangements. The use of exotic flowers and non-plant materials are typical of this eclectic school founded in 1927 in Japan by Sofu Teshigahara.

photo of ikebana arrangement (sogetsu)

Ichiyo School
Arrangers in this modern school use personal interpretation and imagination in their free style arrangements to arouse the senses. A brother and sister, Meiko and Ichiyo Kasuya, founded the school in 1937 to give viewers a more unexpected and profound experience of nature.

photo of ikebana arrangement (ichiyo)

Chiko School
Elegant beauty with a modern sense--this school creates beauty with a minimum number of materials. Fruits, vegetables, dolls or other objects are combined with floral materials and linked with sand sprinkled at the base to create harmony. Mrs. Kao Naruse founded this school in 1927 and originated the style known as morimono.

photo of ikebana arrangement (chiko)

Enshu School
Like flowing calligraphy, traditional and classical describe this elegant ancient style composed of gracefully curving lines. The school’s founder, Lord Korbori, was a member of the late 15th century Imperial Court of Japan.

photo of ikebana arrangement (enshu)

How can I learn ikebana?

Practitioners of many of the schools hold classes in the Washington, D.C., area and throughout the United States and the world. Local chapters can help guide you to the right teacher. For information see "additional resources" at the bottom of this page.

What is Ikebana International?

image of Ellen Gordon Allen
Ikebana International is a cultural nonprofit organization dedicated to the cultivation and perpetuation of ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement, throughout the world. Its international headquarters is in Tokyo, Japan, and there are 165 chartered chapters in over 50 countries with 8,500 members worldwide. Ikebana International was founded in 1956 by Ellen Gordon Allen to promote friendship among the peoples of the world through their mutual love of nature and enjoyment of ikebana. The Washington, D.C., chapter was the first to be chartered by Tokyo headquarters. It has over 250 members who exhibit, demonstrate, and teach ikebana throughout the metropolitan D.C. area. For information see "additional resources" at the bottom of this page.

(at left: Ellen Gordon Allen, the founder of Ikebana International)

How is Ikebana International connected to the National Arboretum?

Ikebana International (I.I.) and the U.S. National Arboretum have a longstanding, continuing relationship.  I.I. members from all over the world donated approximately $20,000 to establish the Ellen Gordon Allen Memorial Garden at the arboretum. It was dedicated in 1983 and is located at the entrance to the U.S. National Arboretum’s National Bonsai & Penjing Museum. In 1980, Chapter No. 1 gave 53 rare books on ikebana to the arboretum’s library.  In 2000, a member of Chapter No. 1, Jesse Denvil Maggard, donated a complete collection of bound Ikebana International magazines to the library. The arboretum and I.I. cosponsor an annual exhibition of ikebana at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum and conduct demonstrations to educate the public about ikebana. Sachiko Furlan, a member and past president of Chapter No. 1, and an arboretum volunteer, provides ikebana arrangements in the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum on a regular basis.

Why is this year’s exhibition special?

The Washington, D.C., chapter of Ikebana International will be celebrating its 50th Anniversary starting in September 2006 and continuing to June 2007.  The first event of the celebration will be a special exhibition of ikebana hosted by the U.S. National Arboretum. The exhibition will take place from September 30 through October 2, 2006.  Between 75 and 100 flower arrangements will be displayed in the arboretum’s Administration Building and National Bonsai & Penjing Museum. Arrangers will be members of Chapter No. 1 and special invited guest arrangers from other ikebana chapters. In conjunction with the exhibition, demonstrations of ikebana will be given by the chapter’s highest ranking teachers.

Who is Ellen Gordon Allen and why does the arboretum have a garden dedicated to her?

image of Ellen Gordon Allen and Master Houn OharaEllen Gordon Allen, who grew up in Washington, D.C., learned ikebana in the 1950s while living in Japan with her husband, General Frank Allen. She was captivated by the philosophical and aesthetic elements of ikebana that stressed harmonic relationships.  Mrs. Allen earned her Teachers Certificate from the Ohara School and began teaching ikebana. She turned her mimeographed lessons into a small book, Japanese Flower Arrangement: A Complete Primer, which saw a number of printings. As she taught, she became determined to share her passion for this traditional art form throughout the world.  In 1956, she worked with ikebana school masters in Tokyo to found Ikebana International. She dreamed of spreading the practice of ikebana, believing that its principles would help foster greater world peace. She stated the organization’s motto as “Friendship through Flowers.” Mrs. Allen returned to Washington, D.C., and helped found Chapter No. 1. The garden at the arboretum was dedicated to her as the founder of both the organization and the chapter. She died in 1972 at the age of 74.

(at right: Master Houn Ohara, Ohara School, presents graduate certificate to Ellen Gordon Allen, Toyko 1951.)

What is the Ellen Gordon Allen Memorial Garden?

The Ellen Gordon Allen Memorial Garden is located at the entrance of the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum. It was designed as a transitional space between the West and East. The Asian-inspired garden elements—the flowing hardscape and restrained plantings—help prepare the visitor for experiencing the world of bonsai.

The garden is dedicated to Ellen Gordon Allen, the founder of Ikebana International, as a lasting tribute to her love of beauty and to her foresight and dedication in bequeathing to so many an appreciation of the charm and beauty of ikebana. It was presented to the American people as a gift from the Washington, D.C. Chapter No.1 of Ikebana International and friends around the world, with the cooperation of the Friends of the U.S. National Arboretum. 

(below: the Ellen Gordon Allen Memorial Garden)

image of Ellen Gordon Allen Memorial Garden





Additional Resources

Learn more about the history of ikebana.

Learn about Ikebana International national or international chapters, including workshops and other activities.

Learn more about the Washington, D.C. Chapter No. 1 of Ikebana International, including workshops and other activities.

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Last Updated   February 29, 2008 2:22 PM