Washington Park Japanese Garden (Portland, OR)


Moss is your friend.

At least, that’s what I try to tell my friends who’ve been battling to remove it from their Seattle lawns. I have long since given moss full sway in my front yard rather than covering it with sod. I’m allergic to grass anyway. After many years of inattention, there is a luxurious moss carpet underlying mature cedars and rhododendron plants and providing a home for ferns, salal, Oregon grape and periwinkle that would do a Japanese garden proud.

And so it is with the Japanese garden in Washington Park. It seems that mosses cover every square inch of this beautiful garden, considered one of the most authentic outside of Japan. I recall coming here with my family many moons ago without the reaction both my wife and I had today. The garden has greatly matured since our last visit and there has been added a beautiful gravel footpath beyond the entrance gate that is a preview of what treasures lay inside and an alternate way to the ticket booth from the parking lot. Otherwise, a shuttle can take you the long way.

We noticed the very mature Japanese maples, many of them very tall, which signifies significant age since they grow so slowly. The laceleaf maples, many of them quite old, have been beautifully shaped and maintained. A stunning specimen was just outside the pavilion whose leafy, domed canopy can be enjoyed from the veranda or whose spectacular twisted trunk and branch structure can be admired at ground level. Doubtless that at the peak of fall color, the garden will be ablaze in red and orange hues. In a different way, the colors must be spectacular at the peak of rhododendron, azalea and camellia season, too; only a few specimens were still in bloom today.

Otherwise, the garden can be appreciated for its sense of tranquility and design of spaces defined by trees, shrubs, water, rocks, changes in elevation, even man-made structures like footpaths, teahouse, bridges, shelters or stone pagodas. Also admirable is the meticulousness with which every aspect of the garden is maintained, from the careful pruning and snipping of plants with tiny trimming shears to the hours required to rake and shape the rock gardens.

And, of course, there is the moss.

Even if the weather was inclement, we were very impressed. I thought Seattle’s garden was nice, but Portland’s is vastly superior, so striking is the difference.

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