Embracing the Seasons at Elk Rock Garden

The best conversations happen in the car. The other day we were discussing the seasons when the 4 year old started in on a chant of “then it will be spring, then summer, then fall, then winter, then spring.…” He gets it already, while I’ve just become hyper aware and a tiny bit more appreciative of seasonal changes since moving to Portland. Embracing the Persephone myth of winter as death, when life goes underground, I thought winter was when nature rests and the world is bleak. But it turns out even on the dreariest of winter days, there is interest, texture, and color in the earth’s slo-mo contortions. Winter teases with a promise of renewal as new growth pops up, often subtle but sometimes shouting out loud. There really is reason to go outside.

Winter bulbs and flowers
Winter hellebores and crocuses

I assumed Elk Rock Garden would be drab in February, especially in contrast to the rich hues and wild fecundity of my previous October visit. But I found surprising beauty along the narrow walkways, and a variety of life forces revealing what actually happens when while I’m glued to the couch as temperatures hover around the 30s for weeks on end, with occasional dips below freezing.

Moss makes every bright in winter
Moss makes everything bright in Winter

Pale purple and white crocuses and bright yellow mystery bulbs pushed exuberantly through the mud in a show of strength. A variety of hellebores in pinks and whites ventured forth, like me, following the sun. The majestic Sequoia and other tall evergreens sucked in the damp, while other bare branches reached out in stark contrast with a mantle of brilliant moss draping their bark. A blanket of fog lent mystery to the meandering paths and winding stone steps, shrouding the Willamette river below.

Winter green beauty
Winter of course

The garden was named by the first owners as a nod to the natives who drove elk off the cliff there, harvesting them from the water below. It looks across the river to Elk Rock Island (which I wrote about twice, here and here).

A fall view toward eastern Portland
A fall view toward eastern Portland

After acquiring the land in the late 1800s they built a dour, unadorned grey mansion in the Scottish style. In contrast to the brooding grey house, they designed 13 acres with an elaborate and diverse botanical garden (including 35 varieties of magnolias, more than I knew existed).

The house and grounds
The house and grounds
The house and grounds

It’s a wonderland of mystery and variety, an adventure in sensory delight, just a 15 minute drive from my home. Carefully planned grounds border displays of native and exotic plants. It’s only about a mile of walking, sparsely visited, with secluded benches, alcoves, and water features offering opportunities to tuck yourself away and ponder what it’s all about.

bench in alcove
An invitation to sit

Later heirs donated the property to the Episcopal Diocese in the 1950s with the stipulation that the grounds would be left open to the public. The land was recently purchased by one of the wealthy Schnitzers, a name that can be seen on several Portland halls and buildings. Hopefully this transition will ensure the ongoing upkeep of the property and maintain this treasure for us all.

Still, I’m looking forward to an end of winter…

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