The last garden I visited at Lotusland is also the last one that was installed. Its beginnings, however, go back many decades. Cactus aficionado Merritt Sigsbee Dunlap started his collection in 1929 and in 1966 promised it to Madame Walska, whom he had known since the 1940s. It was finally donated to Lotusland in 1999, 15 years after Madame’s death, but due to a lack of funds and the sheer size of the collection – 530 specimens from over 300 species – it took another few years before the new Cactus Garden was finally unveiled. Merritt Dunlap attended the 2003 opening and in the same year celebrated his 97th birthday in the Cactus Garden. He is said to have been very proud of how it turned out.
Entrance to the Cactus Garden
I love the design of the ¾-acre Cactus Garden. Mounded planting beds of varying height give the area a sense of dimensionality, emphasized by circuitous walking paths that wind through the garden. Black shale is used as the top dressing for a clean and elegant look. 300 tons of boulders were brought in to create the beds, and basalt columns provide additional visual interest.
As you can see from these photos, the collection consists primarily on columnar cacti. Because of their size—some are 20 ft. tall—they awe even visitors who normally aren’t into prickly plants.
I’m not an expert on cacti, and since only some specimens were labeled, I don’t have an ID for most of the plants in the photos that follow. I hope you’ll enjoy them nonetheless. If you are able to ID any of these cacti, please leave a comment at the bottom of this post.
Pereskia sacharosa, a cactus with persistent non-succulent leaves
One cactus in the collection that is particularly rare is Opuntia galapageia var. galapageia, a prickly pear endemic to the Galápagos Islands. In its native habitat it grows to tree size.
My favorite spot in the Cactus Garden was the elevated viewing terrace. It is raised enough to provide an unimpeded 360° view of the sun-drenched expanse of cacti and rocks. It was quite hot there during my afternoon visit, but what a great place this would be to enjoy a cool drink in the evening!
The final image in this post is a 360° panorama taken from the viewing terrace. Click the thumbnail below to see the full-sized image in a new window. The file is quite large so it may take a moment to load. I’m hoping this panorama will give you a better idea of how spectacular the Cactus Garden is.
Traditional botanical gardens are typically focused on the display, preservation and study of plants. Plants come first, design second—if it is a consideration at all.
Lotusland is very different. It is the brainchild of an eccentric artist with a very special vision. A romantic through and through, Madame Walska was not interested in science. What she set out to create was a wonderland of plants, a garden of visual delights. As a declared “enemy of the average,” she was drawn to the exotic and unusual, and her considerable fortune allowed her to bring her vision to life exactly as she had imagined it, without having to compromise. She was also far-sighted enough to ensure that her legacy would be preserved for all of us to enjoy.
But Madame has been dead for almost thirty years. Since then, her foundation has not only preserved her vision, but expanded upon it. A 37-acre estate requires constant maintenance; plants die and need to be replaced; structural improvements need to be made; the needs of visitors need to be taken into account. Under the stewardship of Virginia Hayes, Lotusland’s Curator of the Living Collection, the gardens have thrived. I bet if Madame saw what Lotusland has become since she passed away, she would be thrilled.
Part 1 of my Lotusland coverage features the Visitor Center and Australian Garden, the Tropical Garden and the Japanese Garden.
Part 2 is about the Blue Garden, the Cycad Garden, the Fern Garden and the Bromeliad Garden.
Part 3 takes you to the Aloe Garden.
Part 4 covers the Water Garden, the cacti and euphorbia plantings along the road to the main house and the main house itself.