Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

Eastern Exposure: Inside the Walled Wonderland That Is Portland’s Lan Su Chinese Garden

Photos by Ryan Benoit

Modeled after the gardens of the Ming Dynasty, Portland’s Lan Su Chinese Garden is — with its smudgy florals, sharp stone edges and tastefully placed calligraphy — a bit like wandering around an illustrated scroll.

The garden was our second stop during our trip to Portland, Oregon, last September. After chatting with the friendly staff about the osmanthus (sweet olive) tree near the entrance whose fragrant fall-blooming white flowers are legendary (alas, we were there too early in the year to experience them), we wandered around Lan Su’s lively walled space that seems much larger than its one acre.

(And yet, being smack-dab in the middle of Old Town/Chinatown, we also felt like we were inside a leafy jewel box whenever we looked up and saw all the surrounding glass skyscrapers. Very cool.)

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

The Lan Su Chinese Garden is located at the corner of NW Everett Street and NW 4th Avenue in the Old Town/Chinatown neighborhood of Portland. A towering ginkgo tree and a climbing hydrangea lures pedestrians.

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

We began our tour inside the ‘Courtyard of Tranquility.’

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

Pebble mosiacs covered most of the paths.

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

The delicate blooms of Begonia grandis var. evansiana, or Chinese begonia.

When we were greeted by rows and rows of sacred lotus growing out of the central pond, we knew we were in the right place. They were deflowered but still lovely, seedpods and bowl-shaped leaves flying high on stems extending two, three feet above the surface of the water. The persimmon tree was decked out in green fruits. Chinese fringe, hypericum, lily turf and water lilies were some of the flowers that were in bloom.

True to its scholar’s garden inspiration, nature and architecture converge persuasively here at Lan Su; wooded and tiled pavilions, terraces and walkways, and craggy rock formations, and polished bridges and outdoor framing structures lent to the feeling that we weren’t quite outdoors…and not quite indoors…but in a slightly shifted dimension. The traditionally named “garden vistas” certainly add to the ancient-storybook-meets-sci-fi experience: There’s the Courtyard of Tranquility, the Hall of Brocade Clouds, the Knowing the Fish Pavilion, and the Tower of Cosmic Reflections, just to name a few, and they are all giving us ideas about renaming the rooms of our own outdoor habitat.

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) mounts a spectacle in front of giant weeping willow tree (Salix x sepulcralis ‘Chrysocoma’) at Lake Zither.

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

The lotus seed pods will eventually fall, stems and all, back into the water.

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

The t’ai chi classes are popular here.

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

It was late September and we were already craving persimmons!

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

This vista is called ‘Reflections in Clear Ripples.’

According to its website, Lan Su is considered the most authentically Chinese garden outside of China. (The name combines the Lan of Portland with the Su of Suzhou. In Chinese Lan Su means, in a poetic sense, “garden of awakening orchids.”) Opened in 2000, the garden was built by artisans from Suzhou, Portland’s sister city in China’s Jiangsu province. The region is known for the 2,000-year-old Ming Dynasty gardens that inspired Lan Su’s design and plantings, gardens characterized by walled-in formats, pavilions separated by ponds and winding pebbled paths, varying elevations, and rock formations nestled among mountain-loving trees.

The hundreds of species of plants here (which range from ginkgoes and bamboos to wild ginger and mondo grass to hydrangeas and magnolias) are all native to China. And if you need a pick-me-up after all the tree gazing, the aforementioned Tower of Cosmic Reflections teahouse offers tea served in several styles, including informal, ceremonial and Gonfu, and snacks like steamed buns, marbled tea egg and mooncakes.

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

We highly recommend the guided tours, which lend insight into traditions that drove the design of the garden.

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

The Ginkgo biloba ‘Heksenbezem Leiden’ or dwarf maidenhair tree back in September. We bet its leaves are golden by now and about to defoliate. Unlike angiosperms (e.g. maples), each gymnosperm ginkgo will drops its leaves all at once.

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

Climbing hydrangea, or Schizophragma hydrangeoides ‘Moonlight.’

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

Podophyllum versipelle (Chinese Mayapple).

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

A Phyllostachys aurea ‘Koi’ is planted next to porous Taihu stone, limestone sourced from Lake Tai. Together they border a window looking into the ‘Scholar’s Study.’

Tickets cost $9.50 for adults, with student and senior discounts available, and admission is free for members. If you’re in PDX this month, don’t miss the garden’s Mum-vember display, 500 potted chrysanthemums in a wild range of colors and habits installed throughout. Live music and tai chi and calligraphy classes are some of the activities offered year-round, in addition to the public tours that we highly recommend.

We enjoyed our two hours here, and love the idea of coming to Lan Su in the middle of a busy workday — maybe for lunch after escaping one of the surrounding high-rises — to wander around a garden inspired by art, nature, architecture and design from 2,000 years ago.

Below, check out some more of our favorite moments — and more plants, of course! — from our visit…

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

A crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica ‘Tuscarora’) blasts off with color.

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

Under the canopy of a crape myrtle stands a handsome Rhododendron calophytum (or beautiful-face rhododendron) which blooms in the spring. One of an infinite number of reasons to make a return visit.

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

We can’t get enough of the texture on this Lacebark pine, Pinus bungeana.

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

Seven-son flower (Heptacodium miconioides).

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

Seven-son flower (Heptacodium miconioides).

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

Phyllostachys bambusoides ‘Castillon’ mixes with Phyllostachys bambusoides ‘Castillon Inversa’.

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

You’ll noticed that these two cultivars have inverse colorings — one is green with yellow stripes, and the other is yellow with green stripes..

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

Chinese fringe flower (Loropetalum chinense var. rubrum) blooms spring through summer.

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

The enormous leaves of the Rhododendron sinogrande (tree rhododendron) were the largest we’ve ever seen in this genus.

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

White pine (Pinus parviflora ‘Glauca’).

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

The lily turf’s purple stalks of flowers (Liriope muscari) were in full bloom.

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

The central pond is named Lake Zither, with the ‘Painted Boat in Misty Rain’ vista on the right.

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

Here we are inside the ‘Painted Boat in Misty Rain’ vista. This structure represents the friendship between Portland and Suzhou, and lends the feeling of being anchored on shore amid softly lapping waves.

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

‘Painted Boat In Misty Rain.’

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

Be sure to play the fortune sticks!

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

The Tower of Cosmic Reflections teahouse overlooks a rocky mini-mountain. The inscription reads, ‘Ten thousand ravines engulfed in deep clouds.’

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

Variegated Asian jasmine, Trachelospermum asiaticum ‘Variegatum.’

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

Silky Leaved Bramble (Rubus lineatus).

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

Hypericum ‘Hidcote.’

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

Laminated plant guides are available at the entrance and also online.

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

Entering the ‘Scholars Courtyard’ through a circular moongate. Entryways like this one lend to the garden’s sense of endless flow, make it seem much larger than its one acre.

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

Bat-shaped drip tiles along roofline represent the five blessings: a long life, fortune, health, a love of virtue and a painless passing.

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

Ilex aquifolium ‘Silver Edge’ or variegated English holly.

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

Three taihu rocks from Lake Tai and tortoiseshell or moso timber bamboo (Phyllostachys edulis) add verticality to this corner. The lake tides were what made these limestones so holey.

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

One of our favorite trees, Japanese maple (Acer palmatum).

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

The Moon Locking Pavilion offers a view of the moon, which shines a shimmering spotlight on the center of the lake.

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

Water lilies and koi in Lake Tither.

 

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

Rosa ‘Sevillana.’

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

Water lilies on Lake Zither.

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

Black mondo grass contrasts with the greenery of Lysimachia paridiformis var. stenophylla.

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

We ended our visit inside the teahouse, the Tower of Cosmic Reflections.

Lan Su Chinese Garden Tour - Portland, Oregon - The Horticult

What a name! The long menu of teas is served in a variety of formal and informal styles; snacks include steamed buns, and marbled tea egg and mooncakes.

 

  • Lucía Ferreira Litowtschenko

    Gorgeous place and pictures. I love Chinese gardens. Because of the interaction between inside-outside, I particularly liked ‘Painted Boat In Misty Rain.’

    • Thanks, Lucia! We love how every corner has its own special story…