#GBFling14: Lan Su Chinese Garden

The first garden we visited on day 1 of the 2014 Garden Bloggers Fling was the Lan Su Chinese Garden. Located in the heart of downtown Portland, it is surrounded by a mix of modern high rises and more traditional brick buildings.


This walled garden encloses an entire city block, about 1 acre.


When you step through the gates, which I thought were remarkably beautiful, you leave the hustle and bustle of 21st century Portland behind and embark a journey back in time to 16th century China.


Originally named the Portland Classical Chinese Garden, the garden was built in 1999-2000 as a joint effort between Portland and its sister city Suzhou whose classical Chinese gardens are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 65 artisans traveled from from Suzhou to install the garden; 500 tons of rock, including many taihu stones from Lake Tai (see below), were brought all the way from China. While most of the plants in the garden are native to China, they were actually sourced locally because of a plant import ban.

In 2010, on the 10th anniversary of the garden, it was renamed Lan Su Chinese Garden, with “Lan” standing for Portland and “Su” for Suzhou. Interpreted literally in Chinese, “Lan Su” means “awakening orchids.”

Here is a map of the garden courtesy of the Lan Su Chinese Garden website. It gives you a good idea of how the garden is laid out, and how much of it is water.


Unlike other Chinese gardens in the U.S., such as the Chinese Garden at the Huntington in Southern California or the Seattle Chinese Garden currently under construction, Lan Su is on a much more intimate scale. In fact, it is modeled after the kind of garden you might have seen on the private estate of a wealthy family in 16th century China.

While there was plenty to explore—I actually wished we’d had another couple of hours—I never felt overwhelmed. I simply progressed at my own pace, not necessarily proceeding in a linear fashion but instead darting in and out of courtyards, some of them tucked away in quiet corners.

While plants obviously play an important role, Chinese gardens are largely about structure: walls, paths, bridges, pavilions, rocks. In the next six photos you see a variety of taihu stones—porous limestone rocks from the shores of Lake Tai near Suzhou. Also known as scholar’s rocks, they are prized ornaments for Chinese gardens. Some people in our group thought they were ugly, but I found them beautiful and fascinating. Of course in my garden they’d be covered with spider webs in no time!


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What caught my attention more than anything else was the impressive craftsmanship of the Chinese artisans from Suzhou, especially the wooden carvings in evidence throughout the garden.





Covered walkway


Tower of Cosmic Reflections pavilion (tea house)


Painted Boat in Misty Rain pavilion


Painted Boat in Misty Rain pavilion

Other architectural features that immediately caught my eye were the multi-shaped wall openings. Some were round, others quatrefoil, crescent-shaped, etc. One even looked like a chili pepper.




The impressive level of detail continues on the ground as well. Take a look at the intricate patterns created from small rocks and pebbles. I overheard more than a few visitors saying they wished they had walkways that beautiful in their own garden.







And since this is a gardening blog, let’s take a look at some plants.


Chinese mayapple (Podophyllum pleianthum)



Climbing hydrangea (Schizophragma sp.)


Climbing hydrangea (Schizophragma sp.)


Finally a few wider shots taken in the center of the garden. While the lotus pond and the wooden pavilions were impressive, it was much harder for me to ignore the fact that we were smack in the middle of a modern American city. Since it was hot and sunny here, I didn’t linger and soon retreated back to the shaded courtyards along the perimeter.





While the Lan Shu Chinese Garden isn’t large, there were areas I didn’t get to explore as much as I would have liked. I can’t wait to go back, preferably on a foggy day in the fall or winter when the modern buildings just beyond the garden fade into the mist.


2014 Garden Bloggers Fling index


  1. Amazing garden, and it feels so serene and calming too the moment you step inside. We could have happily just sat in there and relax for several hours given the chance. And being in the midst of tall, modern buildings just adds to its charm.

    1. Me too! I felt a bit rushed because of the limited amount of time we had. I, too, would have loved to sit in one of the shady courtyards and forget about the world.

  2. Nice post, nice garden too...we try to come here in different seasons as it is so beautiful (as is the Japanese Garden). It is relaxing, I like to experience it the same way you do, in and out of courtyards, wandering at a slow pace. They also have plant sales...that's where we bought our Cunninghamia 'Glauca' and podophyllum. Do come back and visit again!!

    1. Tamara, you're so lucky to have both the Chinese and the Japanese Garden. What serene and tranquil places. If I lived in Portland, I'd go there all the time.

      I fell in love with your Cunninghamia lanceolata 'Glauca' but it turns out that it won't grow in our climate--it's just too dry here. What a shame, but the story of my life.

  3. Thanks for sharing. I was is Oregon last week but dud not get to Portland. This is one reason to go back.

    1. Portland is a paradise for gardeners. Fantastic nurseries and beautiful yards wherever you look. It's clear that gardening is a shared passion here.

  4. Seeing some of these other posts makes me wonder about my observational skills... I never saw the pepper-shaped opening for instance!

    How much post-processing did you need to do on these photos (exposure-wise)? Really nice.

    1. I feel the same way. Whenever I look at posts by others on a place I visited at the same time, I wonder how I could have missed something that seemed so obvious.

      The only processing I did was to lower the exposure. I use Perfect Effects 8 for that (Photoshop plug-in, but also available as a standalone application).


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