While in Portland, Oregon, for a conference last month we visited a small, but choice Chinese garden. Portland is known for the spectacular Portland Japanese Garden but it was closed for the season.  The Lan Su Chinese Garden is right in town and sounded interesting. We had no idea!

It was overcast and intermittently rainy – not great weather for photography, but still, the garden presented many pleasures. That weekend Lan Su Garden was crowded with displays of chrysanthemums and over-the-top flower arrangements. It was the Ninth Moon Floral Design Showcase, a juried flower arranging show that requires entrants to include chrysanthemums in the design. Here’s one of the simpler designs:

And a larger, more elaborate arrangement:

Below, a study of one of many specially grown potted chrysanthemums displayed on pavilions and terraces for “Mumvember,” celebrating the importance of this plant to Chinese culture.

But the first “display” we saw as we entered the garden wasn’t plants, it was people –  a group of smiling, oddly dressed folks, the Royal Rosarians of Portland. They greeted us warmly and gave out little embroidered roses to stick on our jackets.  The “Official Greeters and Ambassadors of Goodwill for the City of Portland” were out in force.

Why? Well, because Al Roker, the famous TV weatherman and personality, was due any minute! He was making a Portland pit stop as part of a whirlwind national tour to do the weather forecast from all 50 states in one week, while raising money to fight hunger: the Rokerthon.


You could say it was an embarrassment of riches – a celebrity sighting in the offing, a bevy of special ambassadors dolled up in straw hats, cream suits and white bucks, a multitude of champion chrysanthemums in every size, shape, and color, award-winning floral displays….oh, and there was the garden!

Back to that.


The garden’s name, Lan Su, combines “lan” from “Portland” and “su” from “Suzhou,” the Chinese sister city of Portland.  Suzhou is famous for its classical gardens, now collectively a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Near Suzhou, at the base of Lake Tai and underneath its waters, one finds fantastic limestone rocks with complex patterns of holes and depressions. They are prized in China for use in the garden. Above, you can see them placed to echo the bamboo stalks. Lan Su has many Taihu rocks placed throughout the garden – look for them in the photos.

The Lan Su Chinese Garden displays many typical elements of Chinese gardens – scholar’s rocks, pavilions, a tea house, a pond with koi, arching bridges, a moon gate, “leaking” windows, pebble mosaic pathways, symbolic plants such as pine and plum trees, peonies and bamboo – all packed into a small space. Winding paths cleverly lead you through a series of scenes that evoke much larger natural landscapes.

The scholar’s corner – how I wanted to sit right down, pick up a brush and start working!  I love uncluttered spaces for making art.

Graceful willows lean towards the pond, losing themselves in its mirrored surface.

Clouds thickened and flung raindrops across the water, shattering calm reflections into bar codes for the carp to interpret. From certain human angles the water became mercury-like.


The sun peaked out again. Such poetic weather changes – where was Al?  This was perfect!

Al was an hour and a half late already. A handful of Rosarians had left, but most stayed, frowning in polite impatience.  Crowds were swelling as visitors heard about Al’s impending arrival and they hung on, hoping for the glimpse of greatness.

We moved to the edges. I focused in on the details now; the bigger pictures were too crammed with people.


Leaves had fallen into paper lanterns strung in a courtyard. A flower arrangement centered around large hanging glass globes containing fresh white orchids.

A scolding jay flew back and forth across a the pond. Someone stared up into a small pine on a stone bridge. I followed the line of sight, and to my amazement, there was a Barred owl, peacefully perched a few feet from crowds of people, unperturbed by them or by the screaming jay. From directly underneath, Mr. Owl looked like a feathered football.


Mr. Roker had been expected at 11AM, but the entourage was delayed by a flat tire in Montana. He didn’t arrive until 1:30! By that time we’d just walked out the door. In my pocket was a sweet souvenir.  Visitors are invited to open one of dozens of narrow drawers in an ornate Chinese cabinet, in a corridor between garden rooms. I chose my favorite number, 13, and plucked out this fortune:

It was a typical fortune that could be read many ways, but it worked for me. My fellow traveler was pleasant, our journey to the garden was spontaneous, and sure, I gained experience.

To tell the truth though, it got to be a bit much. We caught our brief glimpse of the petite Mr. Roker (who looks bigger on TV, and used to be commanding before he lost the excess weight), and left for more contemplative pastures – Powell’s bookstore. Those of you who’ve been there know it’s the “World’s Largest Used and New Bookstore.” Yikes! Maybe not so contemplative after all. But they had great espresso. That helped get me back on my feet.


  1. Gorgeous! From what you posted it seems it was a great day for photography. I especially like the leaves in the lantern and the willow reflections. Funny how the experience was modified by a celebrity event.That happened to me when Vanna White was at Multnomah Falls.Fun but strange.


      • Yeah, I have a couple poor quality photos of Vanna waving at the crowd from her balcony above. It felt really surreal. I did see part of the episode of Wheel of Fortune that they were filming. I saw it when my husband was flipping channels and made him stop for a few minutes to see the shots they caught of the falls. It was fun to see it from an insider’s point of view – knowing what occurred before and after to get the shots. It’s amazing how much time and fuss was spent to get such a small bit of film time.
        I got to see another bit of that process during the recent visit of the Twin Peaks film crew returning to North Bend. It was absolutely incredible to watch how they swarmed in with complete precision and transformed different locations into film sets and then returned them to their prior state immediately like they were never there. Even their encampments of endless trailers were strategically hidden in the midst of our very small town so they appeared to vanish between shootings to all but them most discerning observers. I’m looking forward to seeing the new season when it premieres. I should’ve taken more photos and blogged about it, but I was working on meeting my novel publishing date and was in a different space than recording to share.


    • 22 – the willow reflections – that was beautiful and would be worth doing a series of. The first mom photo and the pebble patterned walkway image are both more heavily processed, and I think it worked – the one with less clarity/contrast, more softness, the other with lots of contrast and a heavy vignette. Thanks Adrian!


    • Solitude & serenity! Funny! When we first arrived it was pretty quiet, but by the time we left, you could hardly squeeze by on the paths. But I’m stubborn, and I’ll see what I want to see! 🙂


  2. A truly beautiful post, packed full of information as always, Lynn. I do love oriental gardens having spent time in Japan. Lots of similarities here. Water as a central feature is a big one. Your photos of the raindrops on the water are really lovely! 🙂


    • Japanese and Chinese gardens are wonderful places, aren’t they? This one seems to pack a few too many features into a small space I think. I know how irresistible it is when you have a garden to keep adding things. But it still works – it slows you down and makes you look, and that’s the idea.


  3. I love this garden and it is fascinating to me what you chose to photograph (& your photos are wonderful as always!) I was there a few years ago and became smitten with the pebble patterns (love your closeup up shot!) and the black & white theme of the moon garden. My friend who took me there kept trying to show me the interior rooms but they held zero interest for me, it was all about the garden. So now I get to see what I missed on the inside 😊 The startling thing about this garden is that it is so convincing, until you look up and see the buildings of Portland surrounding it.

    And I’m jealous – a trip to Powell’s! Sounds like a perfect day.


    • I hadn’t seen scholar’s rocks with that extremely narrow shape either. You wonder how many rocks the area can produce because I’m sure every Chinese garden the world over had to have them. Chrysanthemums – never my fav either but I do like the spider ones, and seeing so many different varieties together was cool.


    • It’s true that sEwing a place through another person’s eyes can be, um, eye opening. I agree that you really do feel like you’re somewhere far away while you’re there. That is the real genius of this kind of garden design, right? I’m thinking of going on a quick, warm trip to LA and seeing what gardens I find there. Best holiday to you !!


  4. So much to enjoy here Lynn ! Looks like at every turn there was something else to distract and pull closer to . Those limestone *pillars are fascinating .. I’ve not seen it in quite this form . Just huge rocks and limestone pavements as it were . Love those pebble mosaic walkways .. the hours of work involved !! Chrysanthemums I’ve come to like a lot more in recent years I have to say , and those curly petals and colours are delightfully photgraphed Lynn .


    • I hadn’t seen scholar’s rocks with that extremely narrow shape either. You wonder how many rocks the area can produce because I’m sure every Chinese garden the world over had to have them. Chrysanthemums – never my fav either but I do like the spider ones, and seeing so many different varieties together was cool.


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