‘When wet it is like a nest of exquisite brocade,
Fragments of clouds on rich coifs of fairy hair.’
Sung Ch’i, Sung Dynasty
There is beautiful gem in the heart of downtown Portland, Oregon. In a city that is known for being green, clean, and stylishly caffeinated, it should come as no surprise that there is a jewel of a green space enclosure right in the center of downtown. Tea is also served, exquisitely. (This may be the only city block in Portland where you cannot get a cup of coffee.)
The garden is Lan Su. Called ‘the most authentic Chinese garden outside of China’, it is worth every penny of the admission. An entire city block has been made into a walled enclosure, a secret retreat from normal space and time.
Famous plant collector, E.H. Wilson once referred to China as the “Mother of All Gardens.” (Note: In my post ‘Heart of a Gardener’, I wrote about famed British gardener Ellen Willmott, who sponsored E.H. Wilson on several expeditions China for plant exploration. Many of his discoveries he named for Ellen Willmott.)
Portland is also home to the justly famous Japanese Gardens, up in the west hills. Comparisons are inevitable, but certainly not necessary. Both gardens are tranquil and nourishing to the harassed heart. My one comment on style difference is only because I am such an enthusiast for any type of filigree, particularly that which is used in architecture. I noticed that the Chinese Garden has an abundance of gorgeous wood-carved filigrees and screens, as well as plaster filigrees.
Really, really lovely. I found myself taking more pictures of the architecture in Lan Su garden than the plantings. Which I intend to go back and remedy, because, as the Lan Su website brings out…
“Lan Su is home to more than fifty specimen trees, many rare and unusual shrubs and perennials, and curated collections of Magnolia, Peony, Camellia, Rhododendron, Osmanthus and bamboo.”
There is poetry here at every step. Even the garden’s name—Lan Su— can also be interpreted poetically as ‘Garden of Awakening Orchids’.
‘In the deep forest it stands silent, guarding its chastity,
Trusting the light breezes to scatter its fragrance far and wide.
It does not refuse to bloom beside my mossy steps;
When plucked, it does not hanker for a vase of gold.
Singly superior, it may serve as company to a book of odes…’
(Liu K’ o-chuang, Sung Dynasty, Fragrance from a Chinese Garden)
Besides tranquillity, fragrance, and the soft music of shining water, there is history. Where else can you stand in the figurative shadows of master curators who tend 1,000 year old camellias to guard their loveliness for future generations? Or master poets with their ‘books of odes’ in praise of peonies—‘the King of Flowers’—
‘Embroidered curtains embrace the king of flowers,
Its gorgeous hues challenge the beauty of sunshine.
All its branches take color from the sun.
Every petal is filled with heavenly fragrance…’
Sui Shih, Ming Dynasty
Occasionally, instead of reading the gardening and nature notes of others from two hundred years ago, I create a few notes of my own. Perhaps I was inspired by the fact that I was in a garden that took me back through centuries of gracious time. A place where beauty, eternity, and peace are not at all a far-fetched concept.