Monday, May 7, 2018

A Portland Classic: Leach Botanical Garden

Tucked away just off of busy Foster Road in eastside Portland, Leach Botanical Garden is a name familiar to professional horticulturists and weekend gardeners alike. In the 1800s this 16-acre plot was part of Jacob Johnson's land claim, and the creek bearing his name still twists and flows for 26 miles from the town of Boring, through Gresham and Portland, and into the Willamette. In the 1930s John Leach, a pharmacist, and his wife Lilla, a botanist, purchased four-and-a-half acres beside the creek. They first built a picturesque stone summer cabin near the stream, then a stately home on the hill above. Lovingly planted and landscaped, the property remained under the couple's care until John's death in 1972. Now open to the public six days a week, Leach Botanical Garden is supported by Leach Garden Friends, Portland Parks, and a small army of devoted volunteers.

Solomon's Seal
Bring Mom to the garden during the month of May to find the grand old rhododendrons in full bloom. The camellias are shaking off their soggy, faded petticoats and the trilliums are going purple, but the Solomon's seals are unfurling their bells and the rock gardens are just getting started.
There are two routes to the garden. I will refer to them as the Romantic Route and the Practical Route. To find the former, follow Foster Road east (easily accessed from I-205) and turn south on 110th Drive/112th Avenue to Flavel Street. Turn left on Flavel and begin a roller-coaster drive, turning left on 122nd and following it to a parking lot next to Johnson Creek (at this writing, the street bridge is closed to cars but open to pedestrians; repairs are planned for this summer). The advantage of this approach is the lovely creekside walk toward the old manor house, the route taken by the Leaches when they returned home from one of their many adventures. It is also the only wheelchair-accessible route; unfortunately, this hillside garden can only offer accessibility around the manor house and East Terrace. For the Practical Route, take Foster to 122nd, turn south, and turn left at the garden's offices. You will find a small, graveled parking lot with an entrance kiosk. The advantages here are the simpler route and, usually, more open parking spaces.

Whether you start at the Practical side and work your way downhill or start at the Romantic side and work your way up, plan to spend plenty of time in this beautiful, informative, and varied garden. We will begin near the Romantic Route's parking area, down beside Johnson Creek. The first thing you will notice is that there is no entrance fee. There isn't even a parking fee. This unique and delightful garden is absolutely free (but please do make a donation to support the work here!). 
From the parking lot, cross the creek and take a pathway to the right to access the riparian area. Here you will find an amazing variety of ferns, some of which you may never have seen before. Many of the plants throughout the garden are labeled; if you are a gardener you may wish to bring a notepad as you are bound to find plants you can't live without! Here you will also notice the first of many specimen trees scattered throughout the property. Peek under the leathery, heart-shaped leaves of wild ginger to find its hidden, spurred flowers. Cross the footbridge into a wilder part of the forest. Wander the pathway among native wildflowers under the forest canopy until you discover the Leach's stone cabin, as well as an outdoor kitchen that they used during their stays here. Sharp eyes will find chunks of petrified wood in the cabin's walls and the fireplace.
Back at the manor house, you will find a selection of plants for sale as well as an excellent gift shop staffed with friendly volunteers. The plantings are especially lovely here, and stone troughs house alpine plants. On the other side of the house is a wide stone terrace which has witnessed many a wedding. Climb a path to the back of the house to find a microclimate beside the gift shop's roof where cacti sprawl contentedly in the sheltered sunlight. Also behind the house is an exceptional rock garden showcasing a collection of lewisias along with other plants well-suited to the rugged, well-drained conditions. 

From here you will encounter a complicated web of paths; in fact, the trails in this relatively small acreage total about a mile! Look at the map to figure out which areas to visit. This entire upper area is typical northwest forest, but with a twist. Familiar vine maples grow above exotic hellebores. Common vanilla leaf and false lily-of-the-valley grow side-by-side with epimediums from China. Skillfully curated and beautifully planted, this ordinary-looking evergreen grove reveals surprise after surprise. If you normally wouldn't hurry to view a collection of barberry specimens, think again and check out area #4 on the map. Podophyllums from China and the Himalayas loom above nandinas, epimediums, and yes, Oregon grape, all members of this widely varied family. 

This upper area is home to a collection of venerable rhododendrons and camellias, some of which look more like trees than bushes. Look for the shrub labeled, "camellia sinensis;" this woody plant is, in fact, tea, which is not found in most American gardens! You may also notice numerous large chunks of downed tree trunks; an unavoidable by-product of aging trees, many of these will be left to decay naturally and return to the forest floor.
At the very top of the garden you will find nursery beds, a meadow, and a children's garden with interesting and unusual plants. We decided that childhood is relative and went in to examine the collection of pitcher plants. The gate to the Practical parking lot is also in this area.

You don't have to be a botanist, or even a gardener, to appreciate this serene haven hidden in bustling eastside Portland. Come for Mother's Day, or any other time of the year. Bring your camera.

Redwood in the lower forest garden
Gnarled trunk near Johnson Creek

Wild Ginger (lift up the leaves to check for flowers!)

Japanese Maple


A variety of rare ferns throughout the park

Outdoor kitchen and summer cabin
On to the rock garden!



Camas lily







Wood Sorrel

Podophyllum flower

A carnivorous Pitcher Plant
A greedy spider sits inside a pitcher plant, hoping to rob it of its next meal!

Happy Mother's Day, see you in the garden!

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