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.)
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.
We began our tour inside the ‘Courtyard of Tranquility.’
Pebble mosiacs covered most of the paths.
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.
Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) mounts a spectacle in front of giant weeping willow tree (Salix x sepulcralis ‘Chrysocoma’) at Lake Zither.
The lotus seed pods will eventually fall, stems and all, back into the water.
The t’ai chi classes are popular here.
It was late September and we were already craving persimmons!
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.
We highly recommend the guided tours, which lend insight into traditions that drove the design of the garden.
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.
Climbing hydrangea, or Schizophragma hydrangeoides ‘Moonlight.’
Podophyllum versipelle (Chinese Mayapple).
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…
A crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica ‘Tuscarora’) blasts off with color.
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.
We can’t get enough of the texture on this Lacebark pine, Pinus bungeana.
Seven-son flower (Heptacodium miconioides).
Seven-son flower (Heptacodium miconioides).
Phyllostachys bambusoides ‘Castillon’ mixes with Phyllostachys bambusoides ‘Castillon Inversa’.
You’ll noticed that these two cultivars have inverse colorings — one is green with yellow stripes, and the other is yellow with green stripes..
Chinese fringe flower (Loropetalum chinense var. rubrum) blooms spring through summer.
The enormous leaves of the Rhododendron sinogrande (tree rhododendron) were the largest we’ve ever seen in this genus.
White pine (Pinus parviflora ‘Glauca’).
The lily turf’s purple stalks of flowers (Liriope muscari) were in full bloom.
The central pond is named Lake Zither, with the ‘Painted Boat in Misty Rain’ vista on the right.
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.
‘Painted Boat In Misty Rain.’
Be sure to play the fortune sticks!
The Tower of Cosmic Reflections teahouse overlooks a rocky mini-mountain. The inscription reads, ‘Ten thousand ravines engulfed in deep clouds.’
Variegated Asian jasmine, Trachelospermum asiaticum ‘Variegatum.’
Silky Leaved Bramble (Rubus lineatus).
Laminated plant guides are available at the entrance and also online.
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.
Bat-shaped drip tiles along roofline represent the five blessings: a long life, fortune, health, a love of virtue and a painless passing.
Ilex aquifolium ‘Silver Edge’ or variegated English holly.
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.
One of our favorite trees, Japanese maple (Acer palmatum).
The Moon Locking Pavilion offers a view of the moon, which shines a shimmering spotlight on the center of the lake.
Water lilies and koi in Lake Tither.
Water lilies on Lake Zither.
Black mondo grass contrasts with the greenery of Lysimachia paridiformis var. stenophylla.
We ended our visit inside the teahouse, the Tower of Cosmic Reflections.
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.