Gardens and Architecture, Getty Center

The Moment of Alliums

It is the week of return—of the vernal equinox, and of the shooting stars—the blue blue-violet alliums in Robert Irwin’s Central Garden at the Getty Center.

Alliums in bloom in the Central Garden at the Getty Center

We’ve been waiting. In late-ish February, green shoots began rocketing from the rich dark soil in the Bowl Garden toward the quilted blue sky.

Now is the reward.

Just the sound of that singular flower-word: allium. That long, breathy alpha vowel opening, followed by the flick of the tip of the tongue on the roof of the mouth, plunging into that eee, and ending with the harmonic hum. And that’s before you even open your eyes.
These are ornamental alliums, of course, and not the sweet onions and useful garlic of the sauté pan.

These blooms are headstrong. Architectural, modernist. They stand straight, contained, “essentialists of the sensual,” to borrow a phrase from architecture critic Peter Rüedi. They are a riot of geometry and complexity. They live for honesty, and art.

Ladybug on an allium bulb in the Central Garden at the Getty Center
The day I visit the swanlike stalks with the still-tight buds, the weather is mild, perfect. A young mother paces the paths of the Bowl Garden, her white-bonneted baby slung across her chest. The baby’s sweet plump bare feet tap her mother’s hip, tuned to the steady tumble of water down the carnelian-stone chador wall into the garden’s pool.

The azalea maze is abloom, iced red, pink, and white.

Swallows swoop and soar.

A hawk with pale markings makes its trim way against the Getty sky.

Two vapor trails hang in the sky. One a furry tail, the other a Giacometti line.

The alliums are a labor. Southern California is not where they thrive. The Getty Garden’s bulbs chill for 34 days in a refrigerator, below 37 degrees, before they go into the ground to pop up and dazzle us.

Allium shubertii in bloom in the Central Garden at the Getty Center

The vapor trails disappear. Now comes the expectant chatter of young children, herded by clipboard-bearing keepers.

A quartet of six-year-olds engages in an exaggerated march in front of the alliums. Wait! I want to say. Look at these. But they are engaged in a subtle squabble as to who is the leader, a girl or a boy. This will go on for decades. A lifetime. At some point, though, they will see this once-a-year thrust-of-blue-purple roundness and be humbled by beauty. But not today.

But for you—you are over six, and you don’t want miss the alliums. Especially A. shubertii—with its shooting stars exploding past the flower globe like firecrackers.

Who would expect such glory from an onion?

Allium coming into bloom in the Central Garden at the Getty Center
Allium coming into bloom in the Central Garden at the Getty Center
White allium in bloom in the Central Garden at the Getty Center

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  1. julianna
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    oh Paula, you’ve done it again-the most sensual writing and your photographs are superlative.

  2. Posted March 20, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Wow, can I just call this post a “love poem” or “ode to the allium”?

  3. Honey Sharp
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    How I love alliums and I relished in reading Paula Panich’s words about these creatures. Little did I know they’d even thrive in LA! But then the Getty is a haven for plants!

  4. William Linsman
    Posted March 21, 2011 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    What a touching tribute to this beauty of nature at the Getty!

  5. Paula K
    Posted March 21, 2011 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Love Paula Panich’s entertaining blog entry. Now, I want to visit before the allium’s are done.

  6. Susan
    Posted March 21, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the allium article. I especially like the part about the kids not noticing. Hopefully it’s true that someday some of them will.

  7. Pamela E.
    Posted March 21, 2011 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

    Paula, what a beautiful ode to Spring and the scintillating, sculptural celebration that the allium gives us. In a few words you brought me to a garden of delights. Thank you !!

  8. Connie Gale
    Posted March 21, 2011 at 9:32 pm | Permalink


    What a lovely article you presented. Never heard of alliums before! Keep up the good work.

  9. Posted March 23, 2011 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Thank you for inspiring me to drive to the Getty this moment!

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      Olympian Census #4: Aphrodite

      Get the stats on your favorite (and not-so-favorite) gods and goddesses on view at the Getty Center.

      Roman name: Venus

      Employment: Goddess of Love and Beauty

      Place of residence: Mount Olympus

      Parents: Born out of sea foam formed when Uranus’s castrated genitals were thrown into the ocean

      Marital status: Married to Hephaestus, the God of Blacksmiths, but had many lovers, both immortal and mortal

      Offspring: Aeneas, Cupid, Eros, Harmonia, Hermaphroditos, and more

      Symbol: Dove, swan, and roses

      Special talent: Being beautiful and sexy could never have been easier for this Greek goddess

      Highlights reel:

      • Zeus knew she was trouble when she walked in (Sorry, Taylor Swift) to Mount Olympus for the first time. So Zeus married Aphrodite to his son Hephaestus (Vulcan), forming the perfect “Beauty and the Beast” couple.
      • When Aphrodite and Persephone, the queen of the underworld, both fell in love with the beautiful mortal boy Adonis, Zeus gave Adonis the choice to live with one goddess for 1/3 of the year and the other for 2/3. Adonis chose to live with Aphrodite longer, only to die young.
      • Aphrodite offered Helen, the most beautiful mortal woman, to Paris, a Trojan prince, to win the Golden Apple from him over Hera and Athena. She just conveniently forgot the fact that Helen was already married. Oops. Hello, Trojan War!

      Olympian Census is a 12-part series profiling gods in art at the Getty Center.


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