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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: Lan Su Garden in Portland Oregon

By Jim Bishop.

In May of this year, I was fortunate to be able to attend the Pacific Horticulture Society tour of the gardens in the Portland, Oregon area. The gardens of the Pacific Northwest are spectacular in the spring and summer, and if you’ve never been, you should plan a trip. The tour included many beautiful private gardens and nurseries stuffed with perennials, flowering shrubs, and annuals. We were there for the peak bloom of both the irises and peonies, two plants that are difficult for us to grow in San Diego. We also visited several public gardens, including the world-famous International Rose Test Garden and the recently updated Portland Japanese Garden. But the garden that really impressed me was the Lan Su Chinese Garden in downtown Portland.

Chinese Tea House and Lake Zither, Lan Su Garden, Portland, Oregon

By public garden standards, it is a small garden covering just one square urban block. Having been completed in 2000, it is a new garden, especially compared to the Ming Dynasty gardens in China that it replicates. It is considered one of the most authentic Chinese gardens outside of China. The Jiangsu Province of China is famous for its classical gardens in the Suzhou region, with a tradition of walled gardens going back at least 1000 years. The gardens were mostly built by scholars and feature constructed landscapes mimicking natural scenery of rocks, hills, and rivers with strategically located pavilions and pagodas. Art, stones, statues, and artisans of Suzhou were brought to Portland to recreate a classical Suzhou-style scholar garden.

In the garden, serpentine mosaic pathways lead to harmonious landscapes of plants, water, stones, pavilions, and poetry. The collection includes hundreds of native Chinese plant species and forms. The garden has more than ninety specimen trees, many rare and unusual shrubs and perennials, including magnolias, cymbidiums, camellias, osmanthus, rhododendron, and bamboo. Walking through the garden, it presents itself as a series of rooms. Walls and plants create well planned views, hidden views, and vignettes giving the garden a much larger feeling of space. Windows and doorways in classical Chinese style entice you to explore further to see what is around the next corner. Every space in the garden has something to look at, including the amazing craftsmanship of the garden.

The Painted Boat Pagoda

Lake Zither is the largest focal point in the garden. It is backed by a collection of upright Chinese stones symbolizing mountains. Viewing decks on one side of the lake provide seating to contemplate the view and for scholarly thinking.

"Lan" is the Chinese word for "Orchid" and "Su" is the word for "Arise" or "Awaken," so the garden's name is poetically interpreted as "Garden of Awakening Orchids." Next time you visit Portland, be sure and drop by for a visit. To learn more and schedule a trip, see:

SDHS Member, Isabella Fung, contemplating the Scholar Garden

Jim Bishop is the former president of the San Diego Horticultural Society. (2011-2017)

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