Friday, November 18, 2011

A late season visit to Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland

The Painted Boat in Misty Rain pavilion. 'Boat hall pavilions' were used to express one's desire for secluded life. Fishermen in traditional Chinese culture were closely associated with hermits, and therefore boats became symbols for reclusive life. 

The Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland that has often been said to be the best Chinese garden in North America. It definitely stood up for its reputation when I visited last weekend. Despite the leaden skies and bone-chilling cold, I was smitten. A beautifully executed scholar's garden, the Lan Su Garden's latticed pavilions and covered walkways were connected by arching bridges that formed a sophisticated whole with the miniature lakes and ponds, sculptural stones, carefully selected plants and signs with poetic inscriptions.  

All aforementioned - architecture, water, stone, plants and literary inscriptions - formed the five main elements of a Chinese scholar's garden, and all of them conveyed meanings that invited the learned owners and visitors to endless contemplation about nature, culture and life itself. In addition to their intellectual dimension, Chinese private gardens were always a place for enjoyment of life; their covered walkways and other spaces provided perfect setting for strolling around, sitting in shade, playing chess and for calligraphy and painting. And that is why I find them so attractive and surprisingly 'modern'; they were created for outdoor living just like our contemporary gardens, only the pastimes of the upperclass of the  imperial Chinese society were far more sophisticated than our backyard barbeques, pool parties and trampoline bouncing. 

Countless books and studies are dedicated to the four thousand year old gardening tradition of China, so my attempt to describe some of the basic principles in my post about the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen garden in Vancouver is only a tiny scratch on the surface. Still, if you have time, please take a peek as both Lan Su and Dr. Sun Yat-Sen gardens were built in style of the Suzhou gardens in China so famous for their beauty. Only ten years apart in age, some experts and artisans from Suzhou worked on both gardens on this side of the Pacific.
As I also mentioned in my post about the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen garden, it is remarkable how few Chinese gardens there are around the world despite their huge influence on the garden art in both Asia and Europe. We are lucky to have so many on the Pacific coast of North America - in Vancouver, Seattle, Portland and San Marino in California - but otherwise they are few and far between. But with China's growing power and visibility on the world scene, there might be an increasing interest for its culture and gardens, too. I definitely hope so.
Courtyard of Tranquility, formed after 14th to 16th century private gardens for the wealthy in Suzhou, China. The Crabapple blossom doorway is formed after the Lion Grove Garden in Suzhou; the inscription above says 'Entering a wonder'. Gardens were a peaceful and inspiring escape of the daily life, and a traditional Chinese garden consisted (and still consist) of several areas of different sizes and functions, connected by openings that revealed borrowed, scenic views.

Entrance to The Hall of Brocade Clouds, where the imaginary family of this garden would have entertained their guests. Gardens formed an entiry with the house in China. Both were important means to show off the wealth of the family, so much thought and labor was put in creating them. Here, elaborate latticed glass walls protect visitors from heat in summer and winds in winter. 

Interior from the Hall of Brocade Clouds. In Chinese, a hall is called a 'tingtang', and it was the lavishly decorated major architectural and visual element of the garden; large gardens could have several of them. Here, Chrysanthemums, a favorite flower in China, are displayed on the table. As one of the 'Four Honorable Plants' - plum, orchid, chrysanthemum and bamboo -  it was revered and associated with autumn.

 Glossy, almost ripe Persimmon fruit that in Chinese medicine is thought to regulate Qi, believed to be the life force in all things.
Querqus dentata pinnatifida, a rare oak from China, Korea and Japan with large, serrated leaves. The Lan Su Garden has included a large amount of Chinese plants into the design, which is not typical for Chinese gardens in general. They usually contain only a restricted palette of plants, all carefully chosen to provide beauty, color, texture and fragrance, and for their cultural significance. The most commonly used ones are peonies, azaleas, bamboo, pines, Prunus mume, camellias, osmanthus, bananas and lotus. Given the extraordinary richness of the flora of China, this seems controversial, but gardens there were built to convey carefully contemplated meaning and not to be botanical showcases.  

"Most cherished in this mundane world is a place without traffic; truly in the midst of a city there can be mountain and forest" - Wen Zhengming (1470-1559). How well-suited for this view; in the middle of the city, the Hall of Brocade Clouds opens to the terrace and central lake.
 Decorative latticed windows frame views of the greenery outside the pavilions.
The teahouse, called Tower of Cosmic reflections. In Chinese garden two-or-more story buildings were used to relieve the sense of isolation created by substantial walls. Also, the women of the family could view the garden and the surrounding city from these higher buildings.

Artificial hills and water are essential parts of Chinese gardens, symbolizing in miniature form the mountains and waterways of China. Also, water adds sounds to a garden and diverts attention from the busy city life around.
The Scholar's Study; this is where the men of the family studied for civil service examinations which would ensure the family's prosperity. Also, they practiced calligraphy, read and entertained fellow scholars here.

The elaborate doors leading to the study; it provided an excellent opportunity to display one's wealth to colleagues and other visitors.

Detail of the paving in front of the Study; this pattern is poetically called 'Plum blossoms on cracked ice'.
View towards the 'Knowing the fish' pavilion.

View towards the lounge house, used for music gatherings, mah jong games and painting.
View from the 'Knowing the fish' pavilion towards the lounge house and a Lake Tai rock representing a mountain top.

Under the eaves of the Hall of Brocade Clouds, decorated with Chrysanthemums to celebrate the season.

A door opening with banana leaf form; bananas were often planted under the eaves to amplify the sound of water dropping down from the roof. Such attention to details ...

A winding pathway behind the "Painted Boat in Misty Rain' pavilion.

A moon gate leads out from the Scholar's courtyard. In the opening, small Penjing can be seen;  bonsai, like many other elements in the Japanese garden art, were inspired by these miniature trees that replicate natural landscapes.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A crowded stroll through Portland Japanese Garden

View from the Moon Bridge towards the Strolling Pond Garden.

Last Friday was Veterans Day, so my family and I decided to celebrate the long weekend with a road trip to Oregon, a state that has so far avoided our radar despite its many great gardens and good coffee houses. The first stop on our agenda was the Portland Japanese Garden, but already on the gate we were met by a uninterrupted train of Portlanders. A free entrance to celebrate the holiday and an interesting exhibition of antique Japanese textiles meant that instead of enjoying a serene stroll through the gardens, we had to queue through them, repeating a polite "excuse me" when accidentally bumping to other gardens lovers at every turn. Understandably, our experience of the otherwise lovely gardens was anything but zen.

The upper pond in the Strolling Pond Garden.

Waterfall running through the mossy stones to the lower, small pond.

Leaves and needles finding their way past mossy stones - a perfect miniature landscape.

A bit irritated by all busyness, I photographed my way through the gardens desperately trying to find angles without pink or yellow raincoats as unintended focus points. Only afterwards I realized that the crowd was just what I should have photographed. I mean, how many gardens are so well loved that hundreds of visitors from babies to centenarians gather there to spend their precious day off? Not many, but this one definately belongs to them. I missed  my opportunity to tell that story, but here is a selection of my very deceptively empty garden pictures. 

The Sand and Stone Garden; the leaves add movement to the otherwise static landscape... 

The Sand and Stone Garden as seen from the upper level; the Japanese gardens are nestled on the deep western hills of the city of Portland.

The Flat Garden as seen from the Pavillion, which is used for exhibitions; this time, we saw "Mottainai", a beautifully touching exhibition of antique textiles from rural Japan.

The Flat Garden from another view point; this must have been the last weekend to see all the blazing autumn colors before the leaves fall.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The UFO has landed...

I don't usually nick anyone's pictures, but will make an exception here out of nostalgic reasons. I am Finnish, after all.
Just look at these visions of modern Finnish living in the 1960s; wasn't it a glorious time when the human race thought it was facing an endlessly bright future rendered possible by limitless technical and scientific development? Has my own generation managed to design anything as radically creative, ambitious and well, crazy? I don't think so. My personal favorite is the picture with two guys in the plastic sauna with their little globe heater. Just hilarious.
From the landscaping point of view, if only the materials would be changed into something sustainable, these little UFOs would be very earth-friendly, leaving almost no footprint on the nature they float over. I can imagine one above a meadow of wild flowers, how extraterrestrially pretty. When I showed these to my girls, they wanted to have one directly. I wonder if there are any left, somewhere in the Finnish woods?

PS - Spett och Spade just published pictures of some cute space garden paintings; I've never seen a garden with space theme, but would love to see one...

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Not an ash, not an elderberry... but a pinnate leaved lilac

I always love plants in disguise, the ones that aren't easily recognized; I guess a bit of challenge adds flavor to anything one pursues. The plant above is one of them; when asked what it was during last Saturday's plant walk at the Kruckeberg Botanic Garden, I thought it was some kind of a dwarf ash or maybe an elderberry, but I would never have got it right. It was actually a very rare lilac called Syringa pinnatifolia, the only lilac species with pinnate leaves.

Syringa pinnatifolia was collected by the famous plant hunter E.H.Wilson at the elevation of 9000 feet (2700 meters) on the mountains of west China in 1907. Already Wilson reported it to be quite rare, and it has been listed as endangered species in China since 1989; only very few plants have been found living in its original habitat. Coming from the high altitudes, it tolerates cold winters and harsh climates well, and blooms with small panicles of highly fragrant lilac blooms in the spring.

Today, the pinnate leaved lilac grows mainly in botanical gardens and arboretums like the Kruckeberg's. It is available only from very few specialist nurseries and has never become a commercial success. The only reason for this must be that it is difficult to propagate, as while definitely not showy, a fully hardy lilac with fresh and delicate leaves and highly scented, white blooms should be covetable for many gardeners. I at least would love to have one; it is always fun to have this kind of "I would never have guessed" -plants to puzzle other plant geeks with, and there can never be too many fragrant, white shrubs in a garden.

Carpets of cyclamen

November in the Kruckeberg Botanic Gardens in Shoreline near Seattle. No late autumn gloom in sight anywhere, just mounds of flourishing cyclamen peeking out midst the falling leaves... the joys of a mature, well-established garden!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Unexpected rewards amid a lifting fog

Yesterday morning was the coldest so far this autumn. A smoky fog raising from the still warmish Lake Washington blanketed the surrounding hills where we live. In the backyard, our terrace looked like an ocean liner ploughing through the milky haze, with leaves of fire-engine Euonymus and golden Hamamelis shining like bright lanterns in the mist.

When the fog started lifting, I discovered tall whips full of spidery witch-hazel flowers peeking out from bare branches at the back of the border. It turned out that the Hamamelis with bright golden leaves had been grafted into a stock of Hamamelis virginiana that now flowers for the first time.  H. virginiana is a hardy native from the eastern North America that grows up to 6 meters, and it is a common practice for commercial growers to use it as a grafting rootstock for the more tender Hamamelis varieties. I'd been thinking of cutting off the vigorous suckers for some time, but hadn't gotten to it. And looking at the sunny little tassels, I don't think I have heart to do so at least until the flowers fade. Sometimes you get an unexpected reward for being lazy...

More posts about witch-hazels, one of my favorite winter flowering shrubs: