Culture

Chinese traditions bloom at Portland’s Lan Su Garden’s Chrysanthemum Festival

By Winston Szeto (OPB)
Nov. 9, 2023 2 p.m.

The two-week event features a dozen floral designs and takes place during the 35th anniversary of Portland-Suzhou sister city relationship.

Award-winning Canadian floral designer Donald Yim doesn’t just see chrysanthemums as a resilient flower he’s used throughout his three-decade career. They hold a special place in his heart due to his upbringing in Hong Kong.

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“(Chrysanthemum) is a culture — we grow up with that flower, so we have a lot of memories with that flower. I remember my mom used to buy those flowers and then arrange them in my house,” Yim said while seated near his floral creation in one of the pavilions at Lan Su Chinese Garden in downtown Portland.

Yim’s floral centerpiece, titled “Chrysanthemum Elegance: Reflecting Autumn’s Moon in Floral Splendor,” which includes two lengthy black panels and crisscrossing branches embellished with chrysanthemums, is on display in the garden.

“Chrysanthemum Elegance” is joined by 11 other chrysanthemum arrangements crafted by Oregonian florists, as part of a two-week festival running through Nov. 19. The event celebrates the beauty of chrysanthemums and their significance in Chinese culture, according to the organizers.

Established in 2000, Lan Su Garden was born out of the sister city connection between Portland and Suzhou, a Chinese city located just west of Shanghai. This year marks the 35th anniversary of that relationship, which aims to foster cultural exchange between the United States and China, according to the sister city association.

A man with glasses stand next to a floral installation.

Canadian florist Donald Yim poses next to his floral arrangement, titled “Chrysanthemum Elegance: Reflecting Autumn's Moon in Floral Splendor.”

Courtesy of Kendra Farber / Lan Su Chinese Garden

First floral showcase since 2019

The garden hosted a Ninth Moon Floral Design Showcase as part of its Mumvember event every November for many years. These events brought floral designers from Oregon and beyond to create artistic pieces using chrysanthemums as well as other flowers and foliage. These works were then judged and displayed around the garden for three days during daylight hours.

Venus Sun, the Lan Su garden’s vice president of culture and community, explained that these events paid tribute to the Double Ninth Festival, a traditional East Asian holiday observed on the ninth day of the ninth month of the lunar calendar.

Sun said chrysanthemums are one of the “four gentlemen” plants, embodying a scholar’s attributes in Chinese culture. Plum blossoms symbolize humility in winter, orchids symbolize purity in spring, bamboo symbolizes righteousness in summer and chrysanthemums symbolize perseverance in autumn.

“It is such a big part of a Double Ninth Festival tradition (in China) to enjoy the beauty of chrysanthemum,” she said.

This year’s event, renamed “Chrysanthemum Festival,” combines the Ninth Moon Showcase and Mumvember. It is the first floral showcase organized by Lan Su Garden since 2019, following a COVID-19 pandemic hiatus. It’s also the first time the garden has offered evening viewings of the judged floral displays. Those took place Nov. 3-5.

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A woman in red jacket looks at a tall tree adorned with glass balls with flowers inside.

A visitor views Portland florist Kim Foren’s “Into the Crimson Moonlight” floral arrangement in front of the Hall of Brocade Clouds of Lan Su Chinese Garden.

Winston Szeto / OPB

Autumn feel with mums and tropical flowers

Hailing from Vancouver, Canada, Yim travels across North America throughout the year to showcase floral works and teach floristry. Since starting as a delivery worker for his sister’s flower shop in Hong Kong at 16, Yim’s popularity as a floral designer soared during his two decades in the industry. His work has garnered several awards, including the prestigious Sylvia Cup of the Society of American Florists in 2019.

Yim’s floral display at Lan Su Garden, the only one not judged in the Chrysanthemum Festival because of his prominence in floristry, features chrysanthemums and other flowers grown in Oregon, as well as flowers from tropical regions like Hawaii and Ecuador. He aimed to create an autumn atmosphere with these diverse flowers, drawing inspiration from the lakeside pavilion where his creation is situated.

“I know I will be setting up beside the water, so I want to reflect the moon in the water... I put some (circular) containers to make it look like a moon,” Yim said. He added that the fallen leaves placed near the base of his floral installation were collected by Lan Su’s gardeners from the surrounding area, enhancing the autumn feel of his artwork.

Mums as herbal tea ingredients

Josie Losh, Lan Su Chinese Garden’s curator of horticulture, recalls seeing chrysanthemum displays in public spaces when she arrived in Hangzhou, a city approximately 75 miles south of Suzhou, during the fall of 2015. She was there to pursue a master’s degree in botany.

Losh remembers that in China, chrysanthemums aren’t only admired; it is common to drink herbal tea with white chrysanthemum buds in Hangzhou, Suzhou and Shanghai.

“I started drinking it in September of my first year in China,” she said. “Now I love it — every time autumn rolls around, I am waiting for my husband to break out the tin of chrysanthemum tea.”

Losh, one of the three judges evaluating the floral arrangements at the Portland Chrysanthemum Festival, praised the champion piece designed by Portland florist Kirsten Garber. Titled “From the Vein of Gold,” it is displayed in the garden’s Scholar’s Study.

“It’s a really exciting sculpture — it has wood at the base and lots of floral tubes with wire, and then it has a kinetic piece to it. If you turn the handle, you turn it clockwise, the whole tubes go up and down, and it looks like the scales of a dragon,” she said, noting that visitors are welcome to interact with the artwork.

A woman in red jacket is holding a handle of a floral arrangement inside a room.

Josie Losh, the curator of horticulture of Lan Su Chinese Garden, rotates the handle of Portland florist Kirsten Garber’s floral arrangement, titled “From the Vein of Gold,” in the Scholar’s Study of Lan Su Chinese Garden.

Winston Szeto / OPB

In addition to showcasing floral designers’ creations, Lan Su Garden is hosting floristry workshops and Chinese cultural seminars during the Chrysanthemum Festival.

The garden has signed a memorandum of understanding with Suzhou’s Master of the Nets Garden, a UNESCO world heritage site, to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the Portland-Suzhou sister city relationship. This partnership aims to bring more experts from China to promote Chinese culture in the United States.

Yim believes that cultural exchanges like these help maintain the connection of North American Chinese people to their ancestral homeland.

“Respecting different cultures or remembering where we come from — that’s important.”

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