Bring a bit of the outdoors into your dwelling with these traditional Japanese horticultural creations.
Clockwise from top: Purple peperomia, heart-leaf philodendron, staghorn fern, pencil cactus, and ivy hanging from different types of nylon ropes from Sprout Home.
Asthe great outdoors becomes a more elusive pursuit, and our adventures are less Darwinian and more like Haruki Murakami characters navigating urban labyrinths, we have begun to look for creative ways to adapt nature into our homes. In recent years, pots have taken off, literally, from resting on the floor to hanging from ceilings, or, in certain settings, to disappearing altogether. Enter the art of kokedama (pronounced ko-KEH-dah-mah; in Japanese, koke means moss, and dama means ball), an ancient Japanese style of informal bonsai, where the roots of plants are wrapped in balls of mud and then covered in moss. kokedama developed from nearai—a popular bonsai style that originated during the Edo period in Japan, between 1603 and 1868—which are first grown in pots, and then set on stands to enjoy without them. There are many styles of bonsai, including accent plants displayed near an important bonsai, which is usually the main focus of presentation. These accent plants, depending on styles and types, may not even be set inside pots, while their roots are usually covered in moss. kokedama is more approachable and affordable than bonsai, which can take many years to shape, require constant care, and are grown in special pots that are often more expensive than the plants themselves. As our lives become less formal, elements that were once considered accents have become the main focus.
During the early 2000s, kokedama became popular in Japan. From there, it spread to France and the Netherlands, where there are florists exclusively dedicated to the art. “There is something very calming and satisfying about velvety moss growing on a round surface,” says Takaaki Kagawa, a horticulturalist based in Tokyo who wrote kokedama: A Step-by-Step Guide. “Plants growing in mossy balls enhance that effect, because other types of potless bonsai that are not spheric or covered in moss are not as popular as kokedama,” he says.
Creeping fig kokedama in cushion moss, from Takaaki Kagawa.
Choosing the right plant material is crucial for creating successful and low maintenance kokedama. Anna Macoboy, a florist from Australia working in Brooklyn, first discovered kokedama about 12 years ago during a trip to Kyoto, and was surprised to see them for sale there in high-end gift shops. “They seem to defy logic,” Macoboy says. “I became fascinated by their shapes immediately.” She now teaches workshops in New York: at Sprout Home, Japan Society, and occasionally at The New York Botanical Garden. Macoboy started experimenting with different types of soil and plants until she found a satisfactory recipe. “I recommend plants that like shade,” she explains, “such as ferns, pothos, or peperomias.” There are various kinds of kokedama, and it has become very common to make them with herbs, grasses, or small shrubs, because they tend to grow much faster than trees.
Once kokedama entered Western culture, florists began wrapping twine around them to suspend them from ceilings and walls. Tara Heibel and Tassy de Give saw the niche for modern plantings and opened their Brooklyn store, Sprout Home, in 2007, and immediately started featuring kokedama hanging in their windows. “Our store is a kind of think tank where we present plant life in well-designed environments,” says Heibel. “Whether in offices or homes, indoor plants are a way to stay connected to nature.” That idea is central to the many indoor plant displays—besides plants wrapped in moss—that have been popping up in design stores around the world. The old macramé pot hanger has morphed into pots hanging upside down, vertical pockets that attach to any kind of wall, or mattress-like platforms packed with plants while suspended from a ceiling. Trey Jones, a furniture and object designer based in Washington, DC, just launched a hanging planter in May that is both functional and sculptural. He collaborated with designer Christopher Derek Bruno to create the Line Planter, a pot with an attached saucer that could easily be lowered to water. Growing up in rural Kentucky, Jones started missing the outdoor life when he moved to Washington, so the main focus of his design studio is to produce versatile planters with the urban lifestyle in mind. “Although I design many kinds of pots and planters, I like to keep plants high,” he says, “just like a forest canopy.”
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: A pair of kokedama from Anna Macoboy; kokedama from Ovando; designed by Trey Jones and Christopher Derek Bruno, the hanging Line Planter holds a plant pot and drip tray.
Hanging arrangements can also connect a garden to an outdoor structure, as a visual link between hardscape and landscape. The Hamptons is the perfect environment to gather moss naturally and to begin experimenting with local plant material to make kokedama that could work for both the indoors and outdoors. Some ferns, grasses, and grassland plants with small flowers look great as table arrangements. Orchids with their roots wrapped in moss and attached to trees add a touch of color to an otherwise just-green long summer. “Basically, kokedama shows a more relaxed attitude toward life,” explains Takaaki. “And that is what a lot of people are looking for today.”
photography Courtesy of sprout home