On The Garden Path

Missouri garden offers a look at traditional Chinese garden

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The white, marble balustrade overlooks the reflecting pool.

Mary-Eileen Rufkahr

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There is a traditional saying that Chinese gardens are built, not planted. These types of gardens are filled with mosaic pavement, pavilions, bridges and benches. The Margaret Grigg Nanjing Friendship Garden at the Missouri Botanical Garden reflects this philosophy faithfully, yet within its walls, there also lie lush, beautiful flowers, plants and foliage.

The garden's origins began as a way to honor the sister-city relationship established between St. Louis and Nanjing in 1979. Chinese-American architect Yong Pan designed the garden, which was dedicated in 1996. The city of Nanjing donated many of the unique features in the garden.

Traditionally, Chinese gardens follow two distinctive styles - those of the north, with gilded roofs and accents of brilliant red, and those of the southern provinces, which favor a monochromatic scheme of grays, white and black. The Nanjing garden was created to reflect the southern style. However, since the St. Louis climate more closely resembles the northern provinces, many plant species are hardy, southern perennials. Tender ornamentals are displayed in containers and moved inside during winter months.

True Chinese gardens use plants sparingly. Each one is selected for its symbolic meaning. Bamboo represents a strong, resilient character; chrysanthemums represent splendor; and narcissus symbolizes the process of regeneration.

The Nanjing garden is also thought of as a 'scholar's garden,' designed to provide a retreat from the distractions of the day.

Entry to the garden is through what is called the 'moon gate.' The circular shape symbolizes the idea of perfection. The walkway into the garden is paved with colorful mosaics, one of which features a phoenix, in honor of the empress.

Further into the garden, visitors are surrounded by lush greenery. Common ferns, hostas and azaleas exist side by side with the less common lotus, orchid and banana tree. Birds sing and nest in the trees, and frogs splash in the reflecting pool.

A white marble balustrade overlooks a small pond, which is fed by a gentle waterfall. Across the way is a curved footbridge. Both the bridge and the balustrade were carved in China.

The focal point of the garden is the pavilion. Fitting together like a puzzle, only the roof is fastened by nails. Each support column is comprised of a single tree. The sloping, 'floating' roof is topped by a lotus finial. Visitors often linger in the pavilion to gain a different perspective of the surrounding area.

Traditional Chinese gardens are surrounded by walls, and the Nanjing garden maintains this custom. The white walls provide a contrast of light and shadow. The undulating top portion is representative of a mountain range. The 'eyes' in the wall provide glimpses of the bamboo grove beyond. An artistic relief along the wall depicts modern-day Nanjing.

Visitors to the garden are treated to a tranquil, peaceful glimpse of China's botanical beauty.