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Q. What’s a gardener in this part of the country supposed to do during the winter?

A. You can read catalogs, order seeds, and draw plans, but if you want to get your hands on flowers and plants, consider learning ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging. Locally, ikebana classes are offered in a number of places, including the Japanese American Service Committee (4427 N. Clark St., 773-275-0097; jasc-chicago.org), Shambhala Meditation Center of Chicago (7331 N. Sheridan Rd., 773-743-8147; chicago.shambhala.org), and the Chicago Botanic Garden (1000 Lake Cook Rd., Glencoe, 847-835-5440; chicagobotanic.org). Ikebana is more about arranging space than it is about displaying a bunch of beautiful flowers, practitioners say. The arrangements usually involve carefully selected natural materials set into an equally carefully selected container that holds them in a fixed position. They can add a grace note almost anywhere in your home and, depending on what materials you use, work with all different styles of decor. One student who knows this well is Ira Abrams, an English teacher at Chicago Military Academy, who has been studying the art for three years. “You might not even notice the arrangement in an entranceway, but it opens up the space,” he says. “It arranges your whole world.” Ikebana originated as floral offerings in Buddhist shrines in 6th-century Japan. Around the 15th century, ikebana was brought into the home and new styles developed, with fewer rules. The arrangements, though often models of simplicity, are heavy with symbolism and meaning. For instance, some styles are composed of three lines of flowers and twigs, representing heaven, earth, and man. But not all styles are simple; some are quite elaborate and have as many as 30 lines. Domestic flower arrangements vary depending on what room they are intended to adorn. Lest you think this is all too strict and formal to interest you, ikebana is also about you. Abrams says that when he went to his first class, his teacher asked him why he was there, saying that there had to be a reason. Then she told him the reason was what he was there to find out. “It was like something out of The Karate Kid,” he says. Later, Abrams looked at the plant material one of his classmates had been given, noted that it was a little past its prime, and declared his own to be perfect. Whereupon the teacher took Abrams’s leaves and made little tears in them. She said, “The flowers always die. You might as well get used to it.” See what you’ll learn? All about life’s impermanence, about patience, and, as Abrams says, how “when you can’t bend a branch, you have to bend your mind instead.”

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