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.