From humble beginnings come great gardens. And the Garden of Awakening Orchids is no exception.

Portland Classical Chinese Garden passageway

This beautiful stone passageway leads from the Courtyard of Tranquility into the inner depths of the garden.

Photo Credit: Lane Greer

Portland Classical Chinese Garden Lake Zither

A weeping willow – among other amazing plants – can be admired across Lake Zither.

Photo Credit: Lane Greer

Portland Classical Chinese Garden waterfall

Water and stone – two of the five essential elements of a Chinese garden – are present in the garden’s waterfalls.

Photo Credit: Lane Greer

The Portland Classical Chinese Garden in Portland, OR, sits on what used to be a downtown parking lot. Eight years ago, Northwest Natural Gas sold the land, equal to one city block, to the city for $1. Today the new garden is full of beautiful plants, buildings, waterfalls and even a lake.

There are five basic elements to a Chinese garden, and all are present in this fair Portland oasis:

  1. Plants. Ninety percent of the plants in the garden are of Chinese origin. They include selections such as ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), nandina (Nandina domestica) and tree peony (Paeonia suffruticosa).
  2. Stone. In Chinese culture, stone represents the masculine. All the stone in the Portland garden, even the pebbles making up the sidewalks and courtyard floors, was imported from China. The intricate floor designs are beautiful, but they’re also functional, designed to massage your feet as you walk.
  3. Architecture. The Portland garden has nine pavilions and a teahouse.
  4. Poetry. Throughout the garden, written in Chinese characters, are reminders of what gardens mean and how we should focus our minds while visiting them.
  5. Water. There are several waterfalls and a lake (Lake Zither) within the garden.

Before you enter the garden proper, you’re greeted by the Three Friends of Winter: red pine (Pinus densiflora), Japanese plum (Prunus mume) and black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra). These three are often grown together – for their beauty, as well as for their winter interest and symbolism. This is just the beginning.

The garden is designed so that the cares of the world fade away as you move farther in. The first area, called the Courtyard of Tranquility, contains a large variegated tea olive (Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Variegatus’). It’s almost 100 years old and was donated by a family in southwest Portland. (The heavenly fragrance of a tea olive is not to be missed, so visit at the end of September and beginning of October if you want to catch it!)

In Chinese culture, many plants have special meaning and require just the right spot. For instance, weeping willows (Salix babylonica) have long been associated with women of easy virtue, so the trees aren’t grown near sleeping quarters. Japanese plum or Japanese apricot (Prunus mume), which symbolizes the purity and humble beginnings of scholars, can be found in the Scholar’s Courtyard. Tree peonies are another highly esteemed plant and are owned by wealthy and highly honored people.

On a warm day, you’ll smell the Fragrant Garden before you see it. This area contains such wonderful plants as wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox), winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima), yellow star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides), stachyurus (Stachyurus praecox) and gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides). Many of these beauties flower in late winter and very early spring (more wonderful times to visit the garden).

Don’t miss the other great garden features like the teahouse with its neat leak windows (they allow the views to “leak” in). It’s a great spot to enjoy hot tea on a gray Portland day! And be sure to wander around the outside of the garden where you can enjoy some other beautiful plants like Japanese rose (Kerria japonica) and numerous magnolias. (And to think, the Garden of Awakening Orchids all started as a parking lot. This is just the wonderful kind of place that can give any gardener hope!)