Corner appeal

A butterfly bush hovers over white alyssum and vivid blue lobelia lining an English border in L.A., modeled after the airily textured concepts of British designer Gertrude Jekyll. A meandering ladder of climbing roses clings to the far wall, while yew hedges, at right, add privacy and a backdrop for the floral palette. (Kirk McKoy / LAT)

Few phrases are more magical than "English garden." The words conjure visions at once settled and unconstrained: cool emerald vistas, buxom clumps of lilies and larkspurs, rose petals spilling from a tree-hugging vine. Caught in their spell, desert dwellers yearn for picket fences, while Angelenos who thought they had embraced khaki as the new green suddenly make plans to reseed the lawn.

I know. I'm one of them. In the grip of thyme-scented desire, I've endured the hauteur of modernists who equate dainty blooms with chintz-covered tearooms and wasted years coddling a mildew-prone moss rose. What is it, I wonder, that's so seductive about the idea of an English garden? Why does a style that took shape a continent away still have such a powerful hold on our imaginations?

And how — here we get to the abiding questions of a gardener's heart — do we translate its dewy loveliness to our coastal desert climate?

Southern Californians' romance with the English garden is in no way dimmed by the fact that we don't all agree on what it is. For Riverside's Nan Simonsen, a master gardener and lecturer, whose former rose-scented grounds were frequent subjects of Sunset magazine, the term refers to "a beautiful, lush, colorful environment" characterized by its mix of flowers, herbs, fruits and climbing vines.

Her historical model is the dooryard gardens of England's country cottages. Part larder, part medicine chest, part repository for great-aunt Lucy's prize strain of sweet peas, these crowded village-style plots lure us with an appealing combination of companion-planting wisdom and antique chic.

For Silver Lake landscape architect Mark Beall, on the other hand, classic English gardens are the long, airily textured, flowingly colored borders pioneered by British designer Gertrude Jekyll in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These are the gardens that were becoming fashionable when Los Angeles entered its own Craftsman-cottage building boom, and their advocacy of natural materials and carefully edited artlessness echoed the city's emerging image as a suburban Eden.

Happily, these definitions aren't as contradictory as they seem. The hallmark of both the grand perennial border and the cozy cottage patch is an expressive individualism. No wonder Los Angeles, home to a bewildering mix of private architecture from Spanish deco to Japanese ranch house, adores the English garden: It is as exuberant and eclectic as we are.

But perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. The stylistic attitudes behind these gardens have their roots in the late 19th century, the same expansive decades in which L.A. was built.

For much of that era, English gardens — like English society — were an arena of vigorous control and pompous display. Growers were experimenting with orchids and other exotic imports in greenhouses, and arranging legions of annuals in symmetrical beds that occupied lawns like uniformed regiments. An artistic rebellion, however, was brewing against Victorian formality.

In the name of naturalism, painters were beginning to experiment with blurred outlines and sketchier brush strokes to give a more imaginative impression of their subjects. Designer William Morris created wallpapers and fabrics that evoked the blowsy flowers and innocently twining vines of antique tapestries. Architect Sir Edwin Lutyens designed old-looking new houses in the Arts and Crafts style with simple lines and mellow stone facades.

Lutyens' designs were frequently accompanied by Jekyll's curving borders, which consciously drew on the cottage garden's profusion of bold leaves and delicate blossoms. Jekyll, born in 1843, trained first as a painter at a time when attending art school was unusual for a woman.

A friend of Morris, she was a stocky figure, habitually photographed in squashed hats and gumboots. But her borders seemed almost to float above the lawns that contained them, their clouds of color worthy of an Impressionist painting. To these artistic innovators, anything sensual, individual and seemingly at home where it grew was a welcome antidote to an increasingly industrial society.

Like many of my fellow gardening fanatics, I trace my own English fixation to another era of romantic back-to-the-land naturalism — the 1970s. While some were inspired by rediscovered British classics such as "The Secret Garden," my stimulus was the equally fanciful Smith & Hawken catalog. There, heirloom trowels and benches modeled on those designed by Lutyens promised to lend a patina of picturesque entitlement to a landscape planted yesterday. Of course, there still remained the problem of what I was going to grow to complete the knee-deep-in-Sussex look.

Opening "Plant Portraits" by nursery owner and London garden columnist Beth Chatto, I expected to find pictures of baby's breath and other graceful plants in watercolor tints. Instead, the book fell open to poke weed — the American native whose poisonous black berries are a familiar feature of our vacant lots.

Chatto claims its coarse leaves and shiny berries added "great character" to gardens and flower arrangements. I suspected my neighbors wouldn't see it that way.

The truth is, British gardens are full of American "weeds." Jekyll often planted Southwestern yuccas, enjoying the vivid geometry of their sunray leaves and towering flower spikes. When native plant specialist Theodore Payne arrived in Southern California from England in the early 1900s, one of the first local wildflowers he learned to propagate was the giant, white Matilija poppy. Soon seeds were being mailed across the Atlantic, and the poppy's crepe-paper-like blooms were making themselves at home in British borders.

Indeed, some historians suggest that the English garden, like the French fry, is at least partly an American invention. Jane Brown, author of "Eminent Gardeners," attributes the dreamy English look to one American in particular — the painter John Singer Sargent. His "Carnation Lily, Lily Rose" has been a British favorite since it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1887, she notes. In this lushly painted canvas, little girls light their way with Chinese lanterns through what seems a fairy jungle of towering lilies and nodding roses.

Sargent, Brown relates, got the idea for the painting as he emerged from the Thames after a boating accident, still woozy from a knock on the head. On the shore nearby he thought he saw lanterns and lilies glowing among the trees. His idea took further shape as he convalesced with friends in a nearby Cotswold village, whose aging houses had recently been adopted by summering Americans. Their gardens, which he later used as his setting, were full of lilies and other old-fashioned flowers that the newcomers revered as "typically English."

By the time the 20th century was underway, a powerful cross-fertilization — horticultural and social — had taken place. Lusty, working-class blooms from the cottages — sweet William, maltese cross — had infiltrated the borders of aristocratic estates on both sides of the Atlantic. Swaggering American immigrants like goldenrod had become docile citizens of Gloucestershire borders. And Angelenos were using the English garden's magic to turn a raw new city into one that looked like it belonged here.