Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Kusamono, Shitakusa, and Kokedama: Part 1

Every flower gets its own tiny test tube
Kusamono arrangement by Christine de Beer

 Image result for ikebana 

While most Westerners are familiar with the Japanese floral arrangements known as Ikebana, few are aware of three other equally popular ways with flowers and greenery. They are Kusamono, Shitakusa and Kokedama. All three styles are meant to enhance the Ikebana, not compete with it, and are usually quite small. Indeed, some are so small that the plant and its container can fit in the palm of one's hand.

My interest in these three styles came about quite unexpectedly: By way of visits to the exquisite Japanese Gardens at Gibbs Gardens in Ballground, Georgia. Since I couldn't possibly recreate a Japanese garden in our own 15'x20' courtyard garden, I had to direct my interest toward something smaller. And what could be smaller than working with nature in miniature.

 Image result for kusamono 

Kusamono can be a single plant or group of plants, in or out of a container. They are usually displayed on a mat, flat ceramic tray, flat piece of sliced tree trunk or bark, or small piece of stone, slate, etc.

Image result for shitakusa

Shitakusa should not be showy and should indicate the season relative to the flowers used in the Ikebana arrangement....Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter. It should also indicate the location where the bonsai or Ikebana flowers might be found....woodland, meadows, near water and so on.


Kokedama may use plants, fern, flowers, etc. However, they differ from Kusamono and Shiakusa in that a container is NOT used. Instead, the natural material, its roots and a small ball of the soil it is planted in are all wrapped by fresh moss which is then tied with string or raffia to contain the material.

I started my journey into this new adventure by scouring local antiques shops, flea markets, and the Internet looking for containers with an Asian resemblance. I lucked out at my first stop, Woodstock Antiques Market, where I found a collection of small bonsai pots, perfect for Kusamono.

Bonsai pot, 8 1/2"x6 1/2"

Bonsai pot, 7"x5"

Bonsai pot, 5 1/2"x4"

Bonsai pot (above) with screen still intact.

I was quite fortunate in finding all 3 pots together in one antiques booth. Beside them was the little gem, below. Measuring only 3" in diameter, it was perfect for a small mound of moss I had on hand. I was now hooked!


My next search was for kenzan, known in the West as flower frogs. I found the two below at one of my favorite haunts, Queen of Hearts Antiques in Alpharetta. 

Kenzan, 7"x4" oval
Kenzan, 4"x3" oval

So far, so good. I had the containers and the kenzan. Next on my list: Small plants. My luck held out again when I discovered my local nursery was having a sale on a group of very small plants - all of which were just right for Kusamono or Shitakusa.

Small plant with multiple shoots.

The plant on the left held 3 small bulbs, two of which I carefully removed and transplanted into individual clay pots. I haven't yet decided how I'll use the two broad-leaf plants.

Next step: Finding moss, a common component in all three Ikebana-related styles. After checking various Internet sites that sell fresh moss, I took a break. That's when luck struck again. While on my way to meet a friend for lunch, I took a back-country road and almost missed it.

I doubled back to check and there it was: A bank on the side of an access road that was full of moss, both bun moss and sheet moss. Moss grows very slowly, between 0.25 to 2.5 inches in length annually, so it's vital that when digging up moss (or any wild growing plants not on an endangered list), that one take no more than a small amount. (Obviously, if this had been private property, I would have asked the owner for permission to dig up a few clumps.)

Delicate Fern Moss and Flat Fern Moss
Left, Fern Moss; right Flat Fern Moss

Along with moss, lichen is also a popular component of all three styles and can be found just about everywhere there are trees. Since we live in a small town north of Atlanta, there are still lots of woods between homes and housing developments, and winter is the best time to find fallen branches covered with lichen.

Have you ever seen lichens and wondered what they were? They seem as though they are from another planet! Lichens are bizarre organisms and no two are alike. Lichens are a complex life form that is a symbiotic partnership of two separate organisms, a fungus and an alga. The dominant partner is the fungus, which gives the lichen the majority of its characteristics, from its thallus shape to its fruiting bodies. The alga can be either a green alga or a blue-green alga, otherwise known as cyanobacteria. Many lichens will have both types of algae.

 I actually found two long branches covered with lichen on the edge of the road where I found the moss. One of them actually did resemble an alien-looking creature and I couldn't resist it.
Lichen on branch 2 feet long.

Close up of "alien face"!

Two kinds of lichen growing close together.

At this point, I had all the components necessary for creating my own Kusamono, Shitakusa and Kokedama....the containers, the plants, the kenzan, the moss and lichen.  All I needed now was patience, instructions and practice. Stay tune for Part 2!