Lan Su Chinese Garden, a downtown Portland oasis


While vacationing in Portland last month, we visited Lan Su Chinese Garden in downtown Portland. It was my third visit, and I find I enjoy it more each time I see it. Chinese gardens have had to grow on me, so different do they seem from the Western or even Japanese garden traditions I’m used to, with a city-like emphasis on architecture — which is, at Lan Su, ornately beautiful.


Pavilions and a tea house with swoop-edged roofs offer sheltered garden-viewing spots throughout this walled urban oasis.


Rather than extensive garden beds or an open lawn, the heart of this garden is a large pond with waterlilies and lotus.


This small pavilion along a zigzagging bridge was a popular spot to enjoy the garden.


A mysterious grotto of rugged limestone rocks can be seen just beyond the bridge.


From this arched bridge…


…you see a waterfall fountain inside the grotto. Outside, etched and painted Chinese characters offer…a short poem? The name of this garden feature? No climbing on rocks, please?


Semi-hidden views are a theme of this garden, with cut-out windows in organic shapes offering glimpses of or entry into intimate courtyards.


A square lattice window


A quatrefoil doorway


This moon doorway with a view of a craggy standing stone is my favorite. Called Tai Hu rocks, according to the garden’s website, the limestone is mined from Lake Tai in China. “They are prized for their four virtues which are: the holes that allow life force to flow freely, the rough texture, their slenderness, and being top-heavy. More than 500 tons of rock was shipped from China for the Garden.”


The pebble mosaic paving is a work of art.


Beautiful pebble mosaic paths lead through the garden rooms.


This pavilion is positioned to enjoy a view of the koi pond.


Covered walkways with lattice detailing lead a winding path along the garden’s outer perimeter.


Vertical layers of lattice


And lattice windows


A wooden boat floats at one end of the pond, as if awaiting a boating party.


Foo dog finial


A Chinese poem is carved into the wooden wall of one pavilion.


Downtown buildings rise over the garden, but inside the walls is this serene oasis.


Lotus was in bloom during our August visit.


Inside one of the pavilions were demonstrations of Chinese arts. A musician plucked the strings of a zheng, or Chinese zither.


And a calligrapher wrote out a humorous poem, something about drinking too much wine…


…and offered it to our language-learning daughter.


We enjoyed our visit to Lan Su, a lovely glimpse into classical Chinese culture.

Up next: Thicket, an urban boutique nursery in Portland. For a look back at Loree Bohl’s exquisite Danger Garden, click here.

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Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

Get ready for fall garden tours in Texas! The Garden Conservancy is sponsoring Open Days tours in Fort Worth on Oct. 8th, San Antonio on Oct. 14th, and Austin on Nov. 4th.

Get on the mailing list for Garden Spark Talks. Inspired by the idea of house concerts, I’m hosting a series of garden talks by talented designers and authors out of my home. Talks are limited-attendance events and generally sell out within just a few days, so join the Garden Spark email list for early notifications. Simply click this link and ask to be added.

All material © 2006-2017 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Evening photo shoot at The Huntington Gardens: GWA Pasadena


The Huntington gardens near Los Angeles have, for years, been on my wish list of botanical gardens to visit. So I was thrilled to see an afternoon visit and after-hours photoshoot offered on the itinerary of the Garden Writers Association symposium on September 20.

Unfortunately, it was surface-of-the-sun hot that day, 103 F (39.4 C). By my mid-afternoon arrival, I realized, to my dismay, that I was completely uninterested in touring the much-anticipated Huntington under the glare of an unforgiving Death Star. Chagrined, I hid out in the gift shop for an hour. Lest you think this a travesty, I assure you that the Huntington’s is the most incredible garden gift shop I’ve ever been in. How I wish I’d taken photos to show you. But I simply browsed in A/C-contented bliss.

As the sun dipped toward the horizon, however, I realized that I needed to suck it up and get out there. I mean, this was the Huntington! And so as the early-bird GWAers were straggling back, sweat-stained and flushed, to the gift shop and an after-hours bar (courtesy of the good folks at the Huntington), I finally ventured forth, prepared to melt for the beauty of the gardens.


And beautiful they are. As described by GWA, the Huntington was “[o]riginally the private estate of railroad magnate Henry Huntington (1850-1927), with a grand Beaux Arts mansion as its centerpiece….[T]he research and cultural institution houses world-class collections, including Gainsborough’s famous portrait of The Blue Boy, a Gutenberg Bible, and a 15th-century illuminated manuscript of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Surrounding the estate are 120 acres of breathtaking grounds that showcase more than 15,000 different kinds of plants in a dozen specialized gardens.”

I did not see any of the indoor masterpieces. The garden was my sole focus. As it closed to regular visitors at 4:30 pm, those of us with GWA badges were allowed to stay on until 7 pm, giving the photographers among us a chance to shoot the garden in the kinder light of late afternoon and early evening.

Palm and Desert Gardens


I headed straight for the famous Desert Garden, figuring the afternoon light would be good filtering through spiny plants, and passing through the dramatic Palm Garden along the way.


The sun was still intense when I reached the Desert Garden, but as I’d hoped, it was incandescing the cactus.


As with the Lotusland cactus garden, it was like visiting a strange planet. At 10 acres and with 2,000 species of succulents and cactus, the Desert Garden is worthy of hours of poking around (pun intended). But amid the rocky beds and asphalt paving, the heat was like standing next to an open oven, and I ended up spending only about 45 minutes here.


Still, I saw many beautiful plants, like these blue echeverias creeping among black lava rock.


And aeoniums so black they looked scorched by the heat.


Otherworldly tree aloe


And barrel cactus in brilliant flower


High in this floss silk tree’s branches, a flock of green parrots chattered amiably.


Nearby, golden barrel cactus clustered in extravagant masses.


I’d never seen so many barrels, not even at Desert Botanical Garden.


I didn’t even know they grew this way, clustered one upon another in great, spiny mounds.


They littered the path edges like beach balls after a pool party, and each wore a golden halo in the afternoon light.

Lily Ponds


Seeking shade, I happened next upon the Lily Ponds garden. I could hardly imagine a more different experience from the radiating heat and dynamic plant arrangements in the Desert Garden.


Here, the mood was serene, green, and cool, thanks to a tranquil pond and stands of rustling bamboo.


I rested there a while before heading into the sun again, crossing a large lawn with a temple-like folly. What a mood shift, from one garden to the next!

Subtropical and Australian Gardens


Glancing at the map I decided to see the Australian Garden next, and I passed the Subtropical Garden along a path facing directly into the ferocious setting sun. This made for great lighting effects on plants like white-flowering sea squill (Drimia maritima) growing under live oaks…


…and bottlebrush, as I neared the Australian Garden.


But by the time I got there, I was cooked, and the garden didn’t look particularly shady, so I just kept trudging toward a towering wall of bamboo that promised coolness and relief.

Japanese Garden


Ahh, a leafy green wall tall enough to block the sun! The narrow entry from this direction might be easy to miss, were it not for the foo dogs (stone lions) guarding the path.


Roar!


I entered the Japanese Garden through a mysterious bamboo forest of swaying culms and rustling leaves.


Climbing steadily uphill, I came to a paved courtyard with a collection of bonsai displayed on wooden stands.


Montezuma cypress in miniature


And olive


Next I strolled through a meditative Zen courtyard, with raked white gravel, boulder islands, and cloud-pruned trees.


A grand stair, zigzagging along one side, exits the Zen garden, and from here I entered the main garden.


Completed in 1912, the tranquil Japanese Garden includes a tall, arching moon bridge and reflecting pond. It was growing lovelier by the minute as the hateful sun sank behind the trees.


Intimate vignettes, like this tsukubai fountain…


…and carved figure near a tumbling stream, made for delightful discoveries along the winding hillside path.

Chinese Garden


As the terrain leveled out, I came upon the Chinese Garden, enclosed along one side by an undulating, tile-roofed white wall.


Known as Liu Fang Yuan, the Garden of Flowing Fragrance, the Chinese Garden opened to the public in 2008 — a century after the Japanese Garden.


Having twice visited the Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland, I knew to expect covered walkways leading to a series of paved courtyards with intricate details.


What I didn’t anticipate was being completely alone with the garden. It was all mine.


The light was soft as dusk came on.


A beautiful detail


Pebble mosaic courtyard — and banana trees by the moon gate?


The teahouse was closed for the day, but I admired the woodwork…


…and rested on its terrace, which overlooks a picturesque lake. The building that resembles a boat, at center, is part of a phase two addition to the garden, currently under construction.


Along the opposite side of the lake, a pavilion known as Terrace of the Jade Mirror shelters amid weeping willows.


Moon gates invite you through it.


Another pebble mosaic path and a carved stone bridge lead on. Note the limestone rocks arrayed along the edges — similar to the holey limestone we have here in central Texas.


Pavilion of the Three Friends comes into view here, with a fine view of the San Gabriel Mountains in the distance.


And the three friends? According to Chinese tradition, bamboo, pine, and plum are considered the three friends of winter for the pine and bamboo’s evergreen foliage and the plum’s early spring flowers. Together, explains the Huntington’s website, they symbolize fortitude, integrity, and resilience.


One last look. The Chinese Garden surprised me by turning out to be my favorite part of the Huntington gardens, in part, no doubt, due to the perfect golden hour during which I visited.

North Vista and Camellia Garden


The light was still sweet as I made my way through the Camellia Garden via the North Vista, a vast lawn anchored at one end by this baroque fountain adorned with carved fish and shells. The website explains, “The Italian fountain had been brought to England in the early 18th century and remained there until it was purchased by Henry Huntington in 1915. It was shipped from New York in 48 boxes that filled an entire railway car. Oddly enough, the fountain arrived without assembly instructions and with a few extra pieces. It eventually was installed five years after the completion of the main house (ca. 1916).”


The lawn is lined with 18th-century sculpted figures, camellias, and palms, and at the opposite end sits the former home of Henry and Arabella Huntington, which today houses part of their art collection.


I’m sure this garden sees most of its traffic in winter, when the camellias bloom, but it’s lovely in its summer greens too — although that lawn no doubt requires a lot of water to remain so green. The tall, skinny palms lend a distinctly California vibe to all the classicism.

California and Celebration Gardens


As the sun set and the staff prepared to close up, I straggled back, blissed out, toward the entrance, passing through the Mediterranean-style Celebration Garden, which is part of the water-wise California Garden. A shallow rill descends along a series of terraces formally planted with lavender, grasses, kangaroo paws, and other dry-adapted plants.


Red kangaroo paws looks especially pretty against cool-blue yuccas.


I would imitate this in a heartbeat if kangaroo paws tolerated Austin’s humid summer climate.


The grasses looked great too.


I love this combo, although I recognize only the yellow-flowering yarrow. Anyone know what the purple flowers are (update: looks like Scaevola aemula; thanks, Lara!), and is that a euphorbia at lower right?


Closer to the entrance, the garden loses its formality with casually inviting seating areas tucked amid billowing grasses.

The Huntington truly is an amazing collection of plants beautifully designed. I’m so glad I had a chance to explore it after-hours, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this very long recap.

Gift Shop


Part of my hideout time in the gift shop was spent autographing copies of my book Lawn Gone!, which I spotted prominently displayed as soon as I walked in the door.


How exciting! My thanks to the Huntington for carrying it and for treating us at GWA to a very special after-hours visit.

That wraps up my series of Los Angeles-area garden tours. Click through for a look back at the beautiful Volk Garden, which has a borrowed view of the Huntington. You’ll find links back to my other L.A. garden posts at the end of each post you follow.

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Lan Su Chinese Garden: Portland Garden Bloggers Fling


Austin and Portland, Oregon, are soul-sister cities, sharing a love of “weirdness,” food carts/trucks, huge independent bookstores, and tattoos, as I can attest from my recent visit. Austin and Portland also share a vibrant gardening culture and even the same hardiness zone (8b), although our climates couldn’t be more different in terms of rainfall patterns and summer heat and humidity.


Last weekend I spent 4 days touring gardens and jabbering with fellow bloggers during the 7th annual Garden Bloggers Fling. Around eighty bloggers from all over the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and even Spain attended to see Portland’s best gardens. Here’s my friend Dee enjoying a cup of tea at one of our first stops, Lan Su Chinese Garden.


Lan Su is a walled oasis shoehorned into downtown Portland, overlooked by tall office buildings but sheltered and inward-looking.


Built by craftsmen from Portland’s sister city in China, Suzhou, it’s constructed in the style of a wealthy Chinese family’s private home and garden in the 16th century, and encompasses a walled compound of buildings, planted courtyards, and a central pond filled with lotus and water lilies.


Piered bridges crisscross the pond, offering picturesque views throughout the garden.


There are long views across the pond.


But overall the garden has a feeling of intimacy, with intricate details that speak to the craftsmanship that went into this garden. Carved wooden windows overlook the pond, framing willow branches.


Pebble-mosaic paths wander through the courtyards.


And cut-out windows, resembling stylized flowers, provide glimpses of the outside world.


This garden is as much about the hardscape (buildings, bridges, paths, doorways, etc.) as the plants. Still, the plant collection includes hundreds of species native to China, including, according to the website, “more than fifty specimen trees, many rare and unusual shrubs and perennials, and curated collections of Magnolia, Peony, Camellia, Rhododendron, Osmanthus and bamboo.” A quote by E.H. Wilson describes China as the “Mother of All Gardens,” home to tens of thousands of species, including many commonly planted in our home gardens today.


I’d visited Lan Su with Loree of Danger Garden three years ago, before the Seattle Garden Bloggers Fling, and I am glad to have had a second visit.

Up next: My visit to a playfully hip, semi-goth garden shop on Portland’s Alberta Street, Digs Inside & Out, which I visited on my own before the Fling.

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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