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COVER STORY

What's that whisper under the urban din? It's nature beckoning us . . .

April 17, 2008|MINDY FARABEE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

This weekend, you could celebrate Earth Day -- which is technically Tuesday -- among L.A.'s stalled freeways, its overbooked apartments and endless arid concrete sidewalks. Or, like the hundreds of thousands of us who trek through Southern California's public gardens each year, you could put spring to better use. Don't know a genus from a phylum? Not a problem.

"The No. 1 reason people come to gardens is to have a quality experience with someone else, be it a boyfriend, girlfriend, family member or friend," says L.A. County Arboretum chief executive Mark Wourms. "Here you have the ability to connect with other people in a way you don't have in a crowded coffee shop."

But you might have already noticed that. "In our visitors you see the face of L.A.," notes David Brown, executive director of La Canada Flintridge's Descanso Gardens -- where nose-piercings are just as likely to be represented as flouncy wide-brimmed hats. "It's not a commercial activity," Brown says. "Moments like this are rare in contemporary life."

In real life, sure, but not at Descanso, where seven bucks buys 150 acres of Technicolor tulips, hump-backed bridges, glistening ponds, bamboo thickets, camellias and a rare SoCal lilac stand.

In fact, there's so much to not buy, you might want to keep window-shopping Mother Nature forever. In that case, follow our trail for further exploring. Shrouded in fussy grooming or laissez-faire ambience, stocked with rare botanicals, native specimens and horticultural globe-trotters, our public gardens possess distinct personalities. Shaped as much by aesthetics as geography, they serve as cultural narrators, telling tales about our philosophical preoccupations and even our collective past.

But maybe, like Kirby Galli and David Cline, you'd rather listen to your iPod. An Amoeba Records manager, Cline composes playlists for each outing. "We like to enjoy the garden in our own way," says Galli. Take a cue.

Garden of Flowing Fragrance, San Marino

On two occasions, Pasadena's venerable Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens flew over Chinese artisans to assist in the creation of its recently unveiled Liu Fang Yuan, or Garden of Flowing Fragrance. The first in the Golden State based on the classic Chinese tradition of scholar gardens, it's also the largest of its kind in the U.S.

With subtle but calculated artifice, these gardens seek to foster intellectual stimulation as well as nature appreciation by orchestrating effects, framing scenes and employing decorative touches such as poetry and calligraphy. "Our designer spent about a year walking the site, just planning," says communications coordinator Lisa Blackburn.

All that strolling translates into motifs such as the interplay between the man-made Lake of Reflected Fragrance and an overhanging California Native Oak, where ripples of the former throw coruscating light into branches of the latter; or the Terrace That Invites the Mountains, a teahouse perch angled to showcase the San Gabriels. The garden's tea shop, which serves dim sum daily, is intended to be a hub as much as an amenity. "Japanese gardens are much more serene, drawing on a different philosophy," Blackburn notes. "Gardens in China are bustling and lively, not Zen-like environments. They're about socializing."

The Japanese Garden, Van Nuys

San Francisco can claim the U.S.'s oldest Japanese garden, and St. Louis has North America's largest, but Van Nuys? It's home to the one attached to the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant. A testament to the plant's efficacy, which within 11 1/2 hours can transmute sludge into fresh H2O, this 6 1/2 -acre site adjacent to the Sepulveda Basin Recreation Center was established in 1984. Features include not just pastoral architecture, black pebble banks, weeping peach trees and a compulsive authenticity down to its snow-viewing lantern, but also a reclamation-plant viewing station with accompanying video. Come for the science lesson, or just to commune with the karensansui (Zen Buddhist-style dry garden).

Our Lady of the Angels, downtown L.A.

Downtown Los Angeles is scattered with leafy, if petite, refuges. (Think Disney Hall's garden patio, the Kyoto Hotel's rooftop half-acre, the courthouse courtyard with its exuberant fountain and piped-in soundtrack.) But on the grounds of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels sits a uniquely symbolic bouquet of refreshing way stations.

With old mission road El Camino Real (a.k.a. the 101 Freeway) running beneath the cathedral's northern edge, designers paired it with a line of the California Pepper trees favored by Franciscans. Though sprinkled with much biblical greenery (fig and olive trees, Stone Pines) and international specimens associated with global religions (such as the Ginkgo trees often grown near Chinese and Korean temples), many visitors have been gravitating toward a rather surprising inspiration: "A lot of people sit and watch the freeway," says archdiocese media relations director Tod Tamberg.

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