21 Nov Eastern Exposure: Inside the Walled Wonderland That Is Portland’s Lan Su Chinese Garden
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.)
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.
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.
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…