Lan Su Chinese Garden, Portland

Portland has its share of public gardens, but nothing quite like the Lan Su Chinese Garden located on a city block in the heart of Old Town. Completed in 2000, it took some 65 artisans from China living in Portland 10 months to create the authentic structures for the garden from materials imported from China. I have been fortunate enough to visit on several occasions, but usually I do not take my camera so I can simply enjoy it though my senses. Last week I broke protocol to bring my visiting nephew here, taking my camera along, too. Let's have a look around.

The walled garden features over 300 plant species found traditionally in China and some from the Pacific Northwest. Here's a pdf of the plants typically found here during the summer months. The garden itself is considered the most authentic Suzhou-style Chinese garden outside of China and let me tell you it is a source of pride for Portlanders. After 15 years of filling in, the plants are gorgeous. It is interesting in all seasons, and there are many activities to keep you coming back. The whole thing would have been in the style of a 16th-century, wealthy Chinese family home.

The name Lan Su has significance, of course. Suzhou and Portland are sister cities, so sounds from both Portland and Suzhou are combined ("lan") and ("su"). Lan is also the Chinese word for orchid or awaken, so the name can also come to mean "Garden of Awakening Orchids." Suzhou is a city in China where more than 60 original gardens from the 14th through the 19th centuries survive. Eight are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

This dragonfish is one of two on the rooftop to the entrance. Their purpose is to swallow all evil and protect buildings from fire.

These tiles can be seen throughout the garden. They are adorned with five bats on each, representing the five blessings of long life, fortune, health, love of virtue, and an easy passing.

Windows giving glimpses into other courtyards and rooms are meant to invoke a sense of infinite space.

Water lilies were everywhere in the great pond.

The tea house and water lilies.

Painted Boat in Misty Rain building on the right; the west wall of the garden to the left.

How sweet is this? A chipmunk or squirrel and what looks to be grapes.

The Scholar's Courtyard is an extension of the Scholar's Study.

The Flowers Bathing in Spring Rain building with part of the six panels carved from ginko wood, The panels illustrate actual Suzhou gardens. On the back of the fourth panel are carved the words "Most cherished in this mundane world is a place without traffic: Truly in the midst of a city there can be mountain and forest." The remarkable thing about these words is that they were written in the 15th century by garden connoisseur Wen Zhengming, and are still relevant today.

These are some of the Lake Tai rocks that are highly prized in China. One is supposed to view them from bottom to top, akin to a mountain adventure. On them, the inscription reads "Ten Thousand Ravines Engulfed in Deep Clouds."

These are the windows to the tea house where, yes, you can stop for refreshments, lunch, lovely.

A small pomegranate fruit on a potted tree in the courtyard.

Black bamboo along the outer wall. Plants in Chinese gardens do more than provide visual enhancement - they are also meant to convey meaning. Bamboo is one of the Three Friends of Winter along with plum and pine that serve to remind us to persevere through the darkest of months.

This is an example of Penjing, or arrangements of tiny trees and rocks meant to capture the spirit of nature.

All of these rocks and stones were laid by hand by Chinese artisans. You are meant to walk barefoot in this garden to feel the roundness of the stones against your feet.

Another fine example of Penjing, like a whole forest in one tiny, little pot.

Another courtyard.

I love the name of this one, the Moon Locking Pavillion. It is meant to cast a shadow so when the full moon is out you can see it in the reflection.

Lotus in blossom.

Even the drain covers are richly carved. Everything has a meaning. Everything is considered carefully, which enhances one's experience at the garden whether or not you realize it.

Thank you, Lan Su Chinese Garden, for a wonderful morning.

View of Big Pink from the gardens. From here we went on to dim sum and other Portland adventures.

If you are going:

Extensive Plant Guide: For the geekier among us, here is an extensive or MASTER list of plants used throughout.
Weekly Plant Walk: Here's the schedule.
Hours: 10 - 6 summer hours
10 - 5 winter hours
Gift Shop? Of course! A great one.
Admission: $9.50 adults, free with membership which starts at $60 for an adult
Other activities: Brush Painting and Calligraphy Demonstrations, Art in the Garden, Tea Room, Chinese Medicine Lectures, Cultural Performances, Music Performances, and much more.
Tours: Daily and free with admission. 
Parking: Street parking available.

Of course, the garden is not to be missed when the late winter blooming fruit trees burst forth, or the Chinese New Year festival arrives. There were a lot of tourists there, However, everyone seems to be on their best behavior. It's a wonderful place to bring visitors and to just stroll on a quiet, rainy day if you can find one. I am so appreciative of this place as well as many other world-class Portland gardens.

Thank you, Lan Su, for a peaceful visit. That's it for this week at Chickadee Gardens. 
Until next time, happy gardening!


  1. What a great reminder of the first garden I visited on last year's Fling! Besides the wonderful photos (most of them surprisingly people-free), I really enjoyed the informative tidbits -- for instance I didn't know that bamboo (yay!) is one of the "three friends of winter". :)

    1. Yay! Glad you enjoyed the post, Alan! This place is full of meaning as well as visual delights...

  2. What a lovely post. Will add it to my list when I next visit Portland.

    1. Hi Valorie, thanks for reading and commenting! It's a great place, I hope you enjoy your eventual visit!

  3. What a lovely reminder of the fling! And a garden Portland can take pride of, one of the best and better than the one at Gardens by the Bay in Singapore.

    1. Really? I'll have to look that garden up...glad you have good memories of Lan Su, it was a hot day when the Fling descended upon it but a cooler day last week. A great place to visit in any weather.

  4. Thanks for the informative post and the great pictures! I've only been there once and missed a lot of details like the squirrel and grapes or the bats on the tiles. I didn't realize the garden was so young. I think I was in high school hen I went, so it couldn't have been more than 8 years old at the time, but it already looked like a permanent fixture of the city.

    1. You're welcome Evan! There are so many details, one could spend a week there and not see it all. The garden is pretty young but healthy so it has grown quickly so yes, feels like a permanent fixture for sure :)

  5. Great reminder of our fling visit. Thanks for sharing the meanings of some of the elements of the garden and your great pictures!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it Peter. You're welcome, glad to pass on the little tidbits of information. That was a fun day on the Fling, wasn't it? :)

  6. You got some wonderful photos. I enjoyed my visit to Lan Su a few years ago, one of the first places we went on our first trip to Portland.

    1. Thanks, Alison! Of course it was one of the first places you visited in PDX because you're super-cool, Alison...a woman in the know!

  7. This is really something different a Chinese Garden. You made wonderful photos!

    1. It is different, and wonderful. Thank you, Janneke!! :)

  8. So, so beautiful. The Penjing examples are absolutely breathtaking. I love them. Can you believe I've never been there?! I really must remedy that. I bet it's gorgeous in the fall.

  9. I know what you mean about sensing a place sans camera. Very glad you relented this time. It almost felt like a first visit, though I've been there many times. Surprising how well that idea of infinite space can be achieved in a relatively small space.


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