Honoring the New Year with the Symbolic Language of Plants

Jan 21, 12:28 PM

by Katharine Koeppen, RA

As an aromatherapist, I'm passionate about plants and love to work with ikebana as a form of creative expression. Earlier this week, I was privileged to have an unexpected private lesson with my ikebana sensei. We worked on creating the first arrangement for the new year (in the traditional Japanese calendar, this falls in February), an important event that sets the tone for one's ikebana practice in the coming months.

Ikebana is about creating a space of beauty and peace in one's environment and in the macrocosm of existence. This art honors the change of the seasons and uses materials that are available and appropriate to the time of year. The creation of an arrangement is a ritual, and every flower or branch holds a particular symbolism. 

Traditional plants for a new year arrangement are pine, bamboo, chrysanthemum and red accent foliage.

In Japan, the evergreen leaves of pine symbolize strength and long life. It is often used as the shin, or heaven line, in a flower arrangement. This relates to western aromatherapy, where pine is recognized as a tree that imparts inner strength in times of adversity, and an ally that assists in uniting the energies of sky and earth. In ikebana, the placement of pine indicates whether the practitioner will experience a year that requires developing or refining inner strength.

Fast growing bamboo is used to reflect the impermanence of all things in life, as well as imperfection. Although the stalks are extremely hard and difficult to break, they are enormously flexible in the wind. Placement of bamboo is indicative of the amount of spiritual and emotional flexibility that the practitioner will require in the coming year.

The white chrysanthemum is the symbol of the emperor and the national flower of Japan. In former times, the Japanese emperor was thought to rule by divine decree, and therefore represented divinity, immortality, nobility and peace. Flowers are generally used for the hikae, or earth line, and in new year arrangements, a chrysanthemum hikae signifies the presence of the Divine on earth.

Red is usually introduced in the form of holly, ilex or nandina berries, and is regarded as an auspicious colour in Asian culture. At the encouragment of my teacher, I broke with tradition in my freestyle arrangement and used bright red geraniums, asking for luck throughout 2010.

The symbolic language of plants is very old and crosses many different cultures. We can choose to view a flower arrangement simply for its beauty, or contemplate it on a much deeper level. Whichever you choose, may the time spent in this experience bring you a sense of inner peace.

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