An East Portland oasis

Changes blooming at Leach Botanical Garden

Many Portlanders are familiar with the story of Pittock Mansion in the West Hills, and how it was saved from destruction in the 1960s to become a publicly owned treasure open to visitors. Not so familiar is the story of a smaller but still beautiful house left to the city of Portland in the 1970s by John and Lilla Leach, a couple notable for their professional and civic accomplishments.

The Leach manor house and its surrounding botanical garden and grounds are located on the bank of Johnson Creek in East Portland. With a garden expansion and redesign in the works, what has become Leach Botanical Garden has reached an exciting point in its history. 

The four-acre property was originally called Sleepy Hollow, and is indeed set apart from its bustling urban surroundings. Entering through the gate into the wooded and blooming landscape evokes a sense of peace and wonder. Unique among the city’s public places is the 2,000+ species botanical collection, gathered on expeditions in which Lilla, the botanist, searched for new examples of flora while John, a successful pharmacist, was muleskinner and camp master.

Those adventures in the '20s and '30s took the Leaches through the mountain ranges of the Pacific Northwest, and led to discovery of five plants not previously known to science. Most notable is Kalmiopsis leachiana, found in the Siskiyous, which bears Lilla’s surname. It has the distinction of being the only plant for which a national wilderness area is named.

Thirty-plus years after the garden opened as a public attraction operated largely by volunteers, Portland Parks & Recreation and Leach Garden Friends teamed up with the Portland Development Commission to build new facilities to better serve surrounding residents and visitors. The goal was for more people to encounter the story of Lilla and John, their adventures, and the plants that still speak to their interests and their husbandry of this place.

But this story almost didn’t happen. The Leach will left the estate to the city as a "public botanical garden and museum," and included a caveat that the property would revert to ownership by the Leach YMCA in 10 years if that didn't happen. As the clock ticked toward the 10-year mark, and the property was being used as a rental, neighbors and others who had known the Leaches urged Commissioner Charles Jordan to come out and see the property before it was signed away.

Jordan made the trip, and was enchanted by the unique beauty of the hidden place. With a promise from garden advocates that they would form a friends group to help manage it, he began plans to open it to the public. Acquisition of adjacent properties and development of facilities to allow true public use were high priorities. The grand opening took place in 1983 with much celebration. 

In keeping with those early aspirations, land has been acquired so that today’s garden is nearly 17 acres. The last master plan was approved by the city in 2010. Its vision includes new planting beds to showcase collection plants needing varied growing conditions. Parking, handicap-accessible pathways and restrooms were all deemed essential to visitors. The garden’s busy calendar of classes, day camps, lectures and meetings needed better facilities in order to meet growing community need, and also to protect the historic properties from simply wearing out.

Last winter, a team led by Land Morphology and Olson-Kundig Architects was selected to design a new Upper Garden. Their mandate was to honor the Leach legacy and story while making the garden one of Portland’s signature experiences. 

Over several months, the team identified transects on the landscape as the organizing principle for the new layout. The framework identifies visitor flows through conceptual gardens, stormwater runnels flowing to a Siskiyou fen, a procession of light buildings across the landscape giving views into the newly planted areas, and a central path leading to a tree walk. The tree walk wends its way three stories above the ground, offering new and unexpected views of the Leach estate and the seasonal treescape.  

Because places change over three decades, the new plan also recognizes Leach as the only public cultural amenity of its kind east of 82nd Avenue, where one out of four Portlanders reside. It's an exquisite and unique gem in an area with very few developed beautiful spaces. Robust community engagement efforts with the diverse neighbors around the garden have been launched in Spanish, Russian and Vietnamese to inform the design process.  

Information about the design process, and opportunities to comment on components and to hear more, are available at Richard Hartlage, the team's garden-design expert and CEO 0f Land Morphology, will give two free lectures, on July 9 and Oct. 22. More philosophically, we’re asking the public to tell us what would make the best botanical garden; you can review the designs and comment here

Help us shape the next chapter in the story of Lilla and John Leach -- and come visit us at the garden!

David Porter, a Portland native, played in the West Hills woods as a boy and graduated from Portland State University in political science. He has served as executive director of Northwest Service Center, Pioneer Courthouse Square and the End of the Oregon Trail in Oregon City. He’s worked at Leach for almost five years. He also plays soccer, is a grandpa, paints, volunteers and lives in Gresham.