Is flower arranging the secret to achieving inner peace?

The ancient Japanese art of ikebana (arranging flowers) can be an antidote to the frenzied pace of modern life

31 August 2017 - 16:20 By Jackie May
Japanese asymmetrical flower arrangements are as much about the blooms and branches as they are about the beauty of negative space.
Japanese asymmetrical flower arrangements are as much about the blooms and branches as they are about the beauty of negative space.
Image: Supplied

In a Victorian-style house next to Newlands cricket stadium in Cape Town a small group of women sits quietly at tables in front of vases, branches, blooms and cutting tools.

There's more greenery than flowers, most of which has been foraged, not bought.

Vases vary in shape and size; many are old ceramic bowls and platters.

It's a weekday morning and the teacher, Cathy Clayton, guides the class in the techniques of ikebana, a Japanese flower-arranging style.

"This is an antidote to our fast, noisy lives which are focused on instant gratification," says student Bea Sobiol.

Practitioners of ikebana spend years, even decades perfecting arrangements. Like a martial art, you'll only improve the more you do it. It's usually practised in a silent and meditative state as a sign of respect for what the Japanese believe is the sacred relationship between man and nature.

Ikebana, recognised as a traditional Japanese art form, has been practised for more than 600 years. According to the Ikebana International website: "It developed from the Buddhist ritual of offering flowers to the spirits of the dead.

By the middle of the 15th century  ikebana achieved the status of an art form independent of its religious origins, though it continued to retain strong symbolic and philosophical overtones."

Clayton encourages her class to think of how things grow naturally. "Take out the extraneous," she says. This is in line with the school's philosophy of not being merely decorative. It's about taking a life form and recreating patterns to show off nature's beauty in a limited space. The asymmetrical arrangements are as much about the flowers and branches as they are about the empty spaces.

Student Cynthia Fan, a florist, is practising a landscape style of arranging. She has a shallow bowl and is placing branches and twigs into a floral frog to recreate a very delicate illusion of a landscape. There is more empty space than plant life in her bowl.

Clayton makes it clear that there's no one right way. "Everyone has her or his own idea of beauty," she says.

Sobiol, who's been practising for eight years says: "Ikebana tests your patience. I've been so frustrated but when you get it right, it gives you so much pleasure."

• To find out about classes e-mail Cathy Clayton on

• This article was originally published in The Times.