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L.A.'s Purple Haze

May 10, 2003

Southern Californians are used to sharing the light of certain seasons. Our squint-or-go-blind beach months bring the world swarming. Midwestern snowbirds flock to the illusion, broadcast by the Rose Bowl blimp, that January basks only in crystalline sunshine.

But this region's most subtly dazzling season is a private, locals-only affair that often catches even natives off guard. If the red and orange leaves of New England's maples trumpet their autumn brilliance, the purple haze of Southern California's lavender days settles slowly, gently over us. One morning, clumps of blossoms canopy the streets. By evening the canopy has become a carpet, tinting cars and lawns the way those old cellophane movie glasses made everything look a little pink.

The annual homage to violet is now quietly crescendoing: in the glowing crown that hovers over certain streets in Mar Vista, in that one showy tree hugging the Harbor Freeway near 3rd Street, in the umbrella of blossoms that upstages the rose gardens at Occidental College.

Mostly it's the jacaranda, a Brazilian import, that draws attention. But ample winter rain has nourished a profusion of spring purples. Rows of agapanthus stalks bob with the breeze, their flowers a swaying violet cloud edging office buildings and homes. Clumps of pale lilac wisteria trail from eaves and curl over arbors. Bougainvillea vines with iridescent magenta flowers cling to fences. Acres of mountain lupine stain hillsides indigo.

The folk of Grafton, Australia, celebrate their purple season by staging a festival every October, complete with a jacaranda queen who motors through town on a blossom-cluster float. Here, while some homeowners grouse about sticky blossoms accumulating on their driveways and windshields, the rest of Southern California celebrates these fragile flowers in private revelry, gliding cars through gritty streets turned into lavender fairylands, exhaling slowly -- and smiling.

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