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.
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.
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.
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?