Classical Chinese Garden
NW 3rd and Everett, Portland, OR, 97208, 503-228-8131

Scholar's Courtyard

The tree peony and flowering plum are ranked first among ornamental plants in China. The tree peony (Paeonia suffruticosa) had humble beginnings as a medicinal plant cultivated for the curative properties of its root. During the Tang dynasty (618-906), when horticulturists developed large, brilliantly colored blooms, the peony came to represent honor, wealth, and aristocracy. Rare cultivars were often fiercely coveted in the regions where they originated. One Chinese historian wrote that when undeserving officials demanded these prized cultivars, they were often given grafts dipped in hot water which would soon die. Our collection of peonies displays a diversity of forms; all are traditional cultivars imported for the garden directly from China.

In contrast to the opulence implied by the peony, the plum (Prunus mume) represents simplicity and seclusion. It is the floral symbol of the first lunar month for its ability to flower in the midst of snow and ice. Two cultivars with pink blossoms occupy the east wall and will become gnarled and picturesque with age.

Planted on either side of the courtyard is the shade loving "spider embracing eggs" plant (Aspidistra elatior). The common name may be a Chinese reference to the menacing looking brown flowers lurking at the base of the stems in spring. Here in the west we call A. elatior the "cast iron plant" for its ability to thrive under hostile conditions. It has long been used as a potted plant in China and its arrival in the west is credited with instigating our craze for houseplants.

Step inside the scholar's study before leaving this courtyard. Framed in one of the picture windows is the fiber banana (Musa basjoo). This species is grown as far north as Vancouver, B.C. in Canada and is capable of surviving near zero temperatures (-18C) with little protection. M. basjoo is located here as a symbol of the toil of self-education. Legend relates that impoverished students used the leaves in place of paper.