Bamboo, spider mums, birds of paradise, and carnations of all hues fill the room. Seated among this motley profusion of stalks and stems, store-bought bouquets, and fresh yard clippings are seventeen women, most age 50 or older, members of Ikebana International, Miami chapter 131. Their work tables overflow with bushy ferns and purple-studded lantana. Their buckets burst with peach roses, exuberant sunflowers, and fanlike greens. "Flower arrangers are shameless," confesses one. "You pick up things from the side of the road or bring things home from the dump."
Susan Cano, a member of Ikebana International and a student of the 600-year-old Japanese art of flower arranging for nearly 30 years, gives a demonstration. "You have to think of ikebana as sculpture," she explains, lopping perfectly trumpeted blossoms off a cluster of white calla lilies as audible gasps arise from the audience. She calls the unceremonious beheading "changing the aspect of the material." The effect, when complete, is modernly attractive, a floral Picasso.
Using centuries-old philosophies, ikebana creations are based on specific principles of spirituality, symbolism, asymmetry, and empty space rather than mere bunches of colorful blooms. The art's ancient origins lie in the Buddhist practice of offering flowers to the spirits of the dead. The characters of the word mean "give life to flowers," and ikebana arrangements, which exist in a variety of appealing styles, are meant to restore harmony and order to living materials that have been plucked from the natural world. As Cano explains, the arranger is the sun. Sterile perfection is not the aim, however. Splotches on leaves, imperfect buds, or dead matter, such as driftwood, are gladly accepted in arrangements, representing an integral part of the cycle.
Hoping to promote "friendship through flowers," the late Ellen Gordon Allen founded Ikebana International in 1956. Allen learned the delicate art in Japan, where her husband was stationed during the Korean War. Ironically her group's first meeting was on September 11. "Ikebana is the symbol of peace and the essence of the cosmopolitan," Allen wrote. "I think it would be ideal if women could take it and use it for a United States-Japanese relationship through ikebana." Though wars persist like weeds, today Ikebana International is an almost-all-volunteer organization that boasts 175 chapters, including more than 10,000 members in 60 countries worldwide. Exhibitions and shows go on internationally throughout the year, and world conventions are held every five years. The Miami chapter continues to blossom, hosting monthly meetings, annual exhibitions, and a variety of special events.