Whether you seek brilliant foliage, faith or culture, there's a public garden in Portland for you

Rose City's big, blooming bounty

craig.sailor@thenewstribune.comMay 3, 2013 

Portland’s location at the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers and a good 100 miles south of Puget Sound gives it a leg up on the growing season. Naturally, it’s a gardener’s paradise.

The city and the region are host to an astounding number and variety of gardens and nurseries, some themed by plants and others by culture and religion.

Here are three dramatically different gardens at varying distances from Portland’s core:


Lan Su Chinese Garden

Where: Northwest Third Avenue and Everett Street, Portland

Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily

Admission: $9.50 adults, $8.50 seniors, $7 students, 5 and younger free

Information: 503-228-8131, portlandchinesegarden.org

“Urban oasis” is a bit of an overused term these days, but it is appropriate referring to the Lan Su Chinese Garden. In the middle of the Pearl District, this 13-year-old garden takes up an entire city block.

The garden is based on a 16th century Chinese design of a wealthy private home. Completely walled in, the garden ebbs and flows around authentic pavilions and a large central koi-filled pond. I’m no expert on Chinese culture, but there isn’t one thing about this place that doesn’t look like it was transplanted directly from ancient China.

Most of the building materials and even the rocks were brought over from China and assembled by 65 craftsman from Suzhou, China, during a year’s residency in Portland.

A bit austere in its flora when first constructed in 2000, the garden has matured into a stunning display of yellow-flowered magnolias, purple peonies, camellias of otherworldly shapes and thousands of other plants.

Covered bridges and a teahouse (that serves tea and snacks) all add to an aesthetic punch in a relatively small space.

On the edge

The Grotto

Where: Northeast Sandy Boulevard at 85th Avenue, Portland

Hours: 9 a.m.-6:30 p.m. daily

Admission: Lower level is free. Access to upper gardens via elevator is $4 for ages 12-64, $2.50 for ages 6-11 and seniors are $3. Children younger than 6 are admitted free. Purchase elevator tokens in the gift shop.

Information: 503-254-7371, thegrotto.org

“The Grotto” is the shorthand reference to The National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother. Part Catholic sanctuary, part cliff-side garden, it’s a peaceful 62 acres of botanical gardens, statues and shrines.

The lower area is dominated by a cave (the grotto) carved in the cliff and sheltering a reproduction of Michelangelo’s Piet. Racks of prayer candles flicker in the breeze. Daily mass is held in a nearby chapel.

Take the outdoor elevator 110 feet up the face of the cliff and you’ll find mostly empty pathways winding under towering firs. Flowering plants, ponds and spectacular cliff-side vistas offer a variety of scenery. A friendly robed monk was walking the paths on my recent visit as beams of light cut through the trees.

You don’t need to be Catholic to find an affinity here. Even if you worship Mother Nature, you’ll find your bliss.

Road trip

The Oregon Garden

Where: 879 W. Main St., Silverton, Ore.

Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily

Admission: $11 adults, $9 seniors (60 and older), $8 students (12-17), $5 children (5-11), free for children (4 and younger)

Information: 503-874-8100, oregongarden.org

If only The Oregon Garden knew what it wanted to be. It certainly is trying hard.

The ambitious 80-acre garden 40 miles south of Portland is part nursery demonstration garden, part education garden, part sculpture garden, part rose garden — and so on.

The whole place has the feeling of design by committee and a lot of compromising. Cheesy bronze sculptures share space with a Frank Lloyd Wright house. That last one will cost you an extra $10 tour price. No thanks.

An impressive conifer demonstration garden had a jaw-dropping number of evergreen specimens. The garden plans to greatly increase its size.

The barely audible complimentary tram tour I took offered up garden highlights, but our guide made bizarre claims. Look! The world’s largest white oak tree! (Yeah, right.) Look! The world’s largest hardy fuchsia garden! (The plants were all 3 inches high.)

The centerpiece of the garden – trees in square planters and water features – felt like a corporate campus.

There are bonuses for an Oregon Garden day trip. The countryside between there and Portland puts the B in bucolic. And nearby Silverton – with its bridges and buildings built over Silver Creek – is about as quaint as a small town can get.

Others to consider

Portland Japanese Garden: A 51/2-acre haven of tranquil beauty nestled in the scenic west hills of Portland, directly above the International Rose Test Garden in Washington Park. 611 SW Kingston Ave., Portland; 503-223-1321; japanesegarden.com. Admission is $6.75-$9.50.

Elk Rock Garden of the Bishop’s Close: located on a hillside estate overlooking the Willamette River in Dunthorpe, Ore. Peter Kerr started the gardens in 1916 on a 13-acre estate that passed to the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon after his death in 1957. 11800 SW Military Lane, Portland; 888-346-2373 or 503-636-5613; episcopaldioceseoregon.org. Free.

Hoyt Arboretum: Founded in 1928 to conserve endangered species and educate the community, the arboretum encompasses 187 ridge-top acres, accessible by trails covering 12 miles. 4000 SW Fairview Blvd., Portland; 503-865-8733; hoytarboretum.org. Free.

International Rose Test Garden: Located in Washington Park, the idea for the garden arose in 1915 from Jesse A. Currey, rose hobbyist and Sunday editor of the Oregon Journal, to serve as a safe haven during World War I for hybrid roses grown in Europe. The garden was dedicated in June 1924. 400 SW Kingston Ave., Portland; portlandonline.com/parks. Free.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 craig.sailor@thenewstribune.com

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