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Ikebana, the quietest of floral art

In Japan’s ancient ikebana, one arranges one’s psyche as well as the flowers.

Midori Tanimune's class starts out like any other, all bustle and chitchat.

Soon: silence.

A dozen students are here at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square to learn the ancient art of Japanese flower-arranging, known as ikebana. It began with sixth-century priests offering flowers to Buddha, and even now is practiced in a contemplative state.

"When you come to class, you probably have some turmoil in your heart," Tanimune says. "Erase that. Be calm."

Practitioners of this fascinating discipline, which promotes harmony with nature, often find it hard to explain. Marcia Borel of West Chester, president of the Philadelphia chapter of Ikebana International, tries.

"It's a beautiful, quiet, elegant thing that has been a meaningful part of my life," she says deliberately.

Learning ikebana may take a lifetime, but there are certain guiding principles you'll hear from Tanimune again and again: line, mass, color; space, movement, depth; silhouette, contrast, texture; horizontal, vertical, cascading.

And, all by itself, asymmetry.

By observing, listening, thinking and doing, students learn "to be calm with this flower and yourself," says Tanimune, who works full time as one of five flower designers at Winterthur Museum & Country Estate near Wilmington.

For 17 years, she's helped create the classic European arrangements for which Winterthur has long been famous. Last week, museum visitors swarmed around a huge dried-flower wreath and Christmas tree in the lobby to admire their stiff-but-still-golden sunflowers and blushing-blue hydrangeas.

Such elegant displays at the former du Pont estate, Tanimune says, "are, in a way, so beautiful but different" from ikebana. (They also bear no resemblance to the generic American "flower arrangement.")

Tanimune studied European-style arranging in Japan and worked at four Wilmington flower shops after immigrating to the United States with her engineer husband in 1968. She became schooled in the corsages, casket sprays, and other popular designs she now laughingly calls "round mounds."

That is, many flowers of different colors and competing elements, all blooming, with a full - Tanimune calls it "stuffed" - look that's perfectly symmetrical.

An ikebana instructor in the region for more than three decades, Tanimune insists that the proper container and setting, and fresh, beautiful materials - the best you can find or afford - are critical. These can be buds, blooms or bare branches, even dried seed pods or willow whips, anything that looks as it does in nature.

Tanimune knows the flower wholesalers, which explains the extraordinary lode she brings to class: sparkling white Cremon mums, starlike white 'Helvetia' Oriental lilies, sunny yellow oncidium or dancing-lady orchids, red carnations, winterberry, red-twig dogwood, bamboo, Australian pine and - the prize - baseball-sized, sorbet-pink pomegranates.

All are suitable plants and colors to celebrate Japanese New Year, which takes place Jan. 1 through 7. They're perfect for Christmas, too.

Tanimune, who favors the Sogetsu school of ikebana, the most contemporary, demonstrates more traditional styles in class. With difficulty, she presses two tall bamboo culms or stalks into a round vase that contains water and kenzan, a needlepoint holder also known as a flower frog.

She quietly adds a spray of nandina with pendulous blobs of red berries, and some pine boughs and lilies. She gives the boughs a haircut, snipping straight across for a shaving-brush look. She pulls leaves off the lilies, gently pries the creamy buds apart, and sweeps away the pollen.

She fluffs the red carnations and tucks them inside the pine needles. The students are murmuring now. Tanimune's creation is simple, dramatic. It seems open and breathing.

"I like to put my soul into it," she says, reminding students to "talk to the flowers. You'll get a much better arrangement."

Tanimune, 69, began studying ikebana while growing up near Tokyo in postwar Japan, which was difficult enough. But she was also 12, and miserable with grief after her father's death.

"I was always thinking of the downside of life," she recalls.

Japanese girls were expected to take lessons in ikebana, tea ceremony, or a musical instrument like the stringed koto. Because Tanimune's family was poor, she enrolled in ikebana, the least expensive, which turned out to be life-changing.

Young Midori discovered that ikebana's silence, discipline and natural focus comforted her and brought her closer to her father. "Through nature I was relating to him. I was always talking to him," she says.

"Please take me to your place," she'd whisper. "Please wait for me."

Over time, in no small measure because of ikebana, the gloom lifted. "Still I am learning. I love it. I love it," says Tanimune, who has done ikebana displays at the Philadelphia Flower Show for 36 years.

Carol Kretz of New London is learning, too. Before signing up for the Longwood class, she'd taken two floral-design classes and an introductory ikebana course. Last week, she was finding it very difficult to move from traditional American style to ikebana minimalism.

"When you do regular floral arrangements, you have vases and vases of flowers over there," Kretz says, pointing to one side of the classroom.

"Here, less is better. It's hard for me. I want to put every single thing into it and then get more."

During her critique of the students' "freestyle" arrangements, Tanimune quietly removes Kretz's carnations, lilies and mums. She leaves the bamboo and the orchids, which she turns slightly inward for a more graceful line.

Suddenly, Kretz's creation is spare, exuberant, gorgeous. She brightens. Her fellow students are murmuring again.

Learn Ikebana

Midori Tanimune will be teaching a nagiere ikebana course at Longwood Gardens Feb. 12 and 19. This is an advanced course - not for beginners. Information: 610-388-1000, Ext. 559; www.longwoodlearning. org.

For additional information about the craft, go to the Web site of Ikebana International, based in Japan, The group's Philadelphia chapter, which has 155 members and covers Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, can be reached at 610-347-0646; for information, go to www.ikebana-