Ganna Walska Lotusland 1

Together with the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Lotusland has been at the top of my must-see list for many years. Needless to say it was the destination I was looking forward to the most on our recent trip to Santa Barbara.


Entrance on Cold Springs Rd

Ganna Walska Lotusland, as it is officially called, is located in Montecito, a few miles south of Santa Barbara. The 37-acre property was purchased by former opera diva and wealthy socialite Madame Ganna Walska in 1941 for $40,000. She originally named it Tibetland with the intention of creating a retreat for Tibetan priests. The priests never came—they were unable to travel to the U.S. because of World War II—and Ganna Walska’s marriage to her 6th husband soon fell apart. Turning her back on men for good, she decided to invest all her energy and her considerable fortune—the spoils of several very lucrative divorces—into creating a botanical wonderland unlike anything that had ever been done before.


Entrance on Cold Springs Rd

Madame Walska loved plants—the more unusual, rare and exotic, the better—but she wasn’t interested in the scientific aspects of botany or horticulture. She left all that to a succession of very talented and dedicated gardeners, garden designers and landscape architects. Instead, Walska used plants the way a painter uses a brush: to bring her artistic vision to life. It is said that she ordered plants she liked by the dozen. Why have one or five or ten specimens of a cactus when you can have a hundred? What may have seemed excessive at the time fortunately turned out to be a stroke of genius. Without Madame Walska’s love of excess, Lotusland wouldn’t be the magnificent botanical paradise it is today.


Giant agave near entrance

Today, Lotusland is more than just a botanical garden. It is a collection of gardens, as many as 18 different ones, depending on how you count them. The gamut runs from cactus and succulent gardens to a cycad and fern garden, from a bromeliad and water garden to a topiary and theater garden, from a blue garden to a Japanese garden. The gardens are connected by paths shaded by majestic trees ranging from eucalyptus and palm trees to live oak and Monterey cypress. Tucked away in the myriad garden beds are hundreds upon hundreds of garden ornaments: statues of animals, humans, cherubs, and mythological creatures; decorative urns, vases, and other pots; even a baptismal fount from the late Middle Ages.


The overall effect is like walking through a dream. This is not a place borne of scientific inquiry, like a botanical garden affiliated with a university or research institution, but the idiosyncratic playground of an eccentric individual with unlimited imagination. And through sheer luck, it has been kept for people like me to see.


I couldn’t help but think what would have happened if Ganna Walska had had children. It’s very likely they would have carved up Lotusland and sold it off, to be turned into yet more exclusive estates for Hollywood zillionaires. Fortunately for all of us, none of Ganna Walska’s six marriages produced kids, and she was wise enough to establish—and fully fund—a foundation that would preserve her legacy in perpetuity.


Ganna Walska had a long and tumultuous life (she died in 1984 at age 96). She came from humble beginnings in Poland, married well and divorced even better. Her ambition to become an opera singer far exceeded her talent but she pursued that dream just as doggedly as she pursued her dream of turning Lotusland into a world-class botanical collection. Her autobiography, Always Room at the Top, was published in 1943 when Lotusland was still in its infancy. Unfortunately, no other books have been written about her (her life would make a great movie) but here are two interesting articles:


Ganna Walska Lotusland is located a residential area in the exclusive enclave of Montecito. Since only a limited number of visitors are allowed per day to comply with city regulations, advance reservations are a must. For complete details, visit the Lotusland website.

Prior to our visit I became a Lotusland member so I would be able to walk around on my own. Regular visitors are confined to a docent-led tour. In fact, we did both: In the morning the whole family did a docent-led tour, and I went back on my own in the afternoon. The individual admission charges we would have paid equaled the price of a one-year family membership, so we broken even—and now we get to go back to Lotus as many times as we want until the end of April 2014.

I should mention that my mother was in a wheelchair since she had injured her knee just prior to our visit. Lotusland was so accommodating, they gave the five of us our very own docent who, in turn, customized the tour to what we wanted to see the most. The docent (unfortunately I forgot her name) was extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic and made our visit even more special. As we were walking through Lotusland, we encountered several other docent-led groups, and they were all small (no more than seven people, I would say).



Like everybody else, we began our tour of Lotusland at the Visitor Center. This small building has the same color and Mediterranean Revival style as the main house, which you will see in part 2. The Visitor Center is actually just a small gift shop, a plant sale area and a set of restrooms.

It is surrounded by the Australian Garden, created after Ganna Walska’s death but very much in line with what she would have chosen. It encompasses a range of Australian natives, not only the more familiar grevilleas and banksias but also rare cycads and grass trees.


Visitor Center/Gift Shop with Australian plantings


Lepidozamia peroffskyana, a cycad endemic to eastern Australia


Australian grass trees (Xanthorrhoea quadrangulata), majestic but very slow growing


Xanthorrhoea quadrangulata in front of Visitor Center

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Xanthorrhoea quadrangulata in front of Visitor Center


Grevillea at Visitor Center


Sale plants at Visitor Center


Sale plants at Visitor Center


Sale plants at Visitor Center


Tea tree arbor


Spear lily (Doryanthes palmeri)


Spear lily flower (Doryanthes palmeri)

Behind the Australian Garden is a relatively wide road that starts at the original entrance to the estate and ends at the main house. The first stretch is lined on both sides with hundreds, maybe even thousands, of Agave attenuata underplanted with Sedum pachyphyllum (in bloom at the time of our visit). I had never seen so many Agave attenuata in my life!


Agave attenuata-lined road at the original entrance to the estate


Agave attenuata-lined road at the original entrance to the estate


Agave attenuata-lined road at the original entrance to the estate


Agave attenuata and Sedum pachyphyllum


Agave attenuata with flower spike


Agave attenuata with flower spike


Looking back towards Agave attenuata-lined road


The next garden we visited was the Tropical Garden. This area is completely shaded by eucalyptus and other trees. Its most outstanding feature are baskets of orchid cactus (Epiphyllum sp.) suspended from the trees. This was something else I had never seen before. The Tropical Garden also contains many specimens of ornamental ginger, masses of Clivia miniata (like Agave attenuata a Santa Barbara staple, it seems) and a few beautiful banana trees.


Trunked Agave attenuata in Tropical Garden


Trunked Agave attenuata in Tropical Garden


Fused eucalyptus trees in Tropical Garden


Eucalyptus trees in Tropical Garden


Hanging orchid cacti (Epiphyllum) in Tropical Garden


Hanging orchid cacti (Epiphyllum) in Tropical Garden


Hanging orchid cacti (Epiphyllum) in Tropical Garden


Hanging orchid cacti (Epiphyllum) in Tropical Garden; Monstera deliciosa in the foregound

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Hanging orchid cacti (Epiphyllum) in Tropical Garden

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Bananas in Tropical Garden

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Bananas in Tropical Garden


Bananas in Tropical Garden


Staghorn fern in Tropical Garden, with Clivia miniata peeking around the tree trunk


Tiger grass (Thysanolaena maxima); it looks like a bamboo but it’s not


While much smaller than the Portland Japanese Garden or Hakone Gardens, the Japanese Garden at Lotus is maintained just as meticulously. The muted palette of the plantings is very much in line with what is typical for a Japanese garden and shows the restraint that is appropriate for such a setting. This is quite remarkable in and of itself because Ganna Walska was not big on restraining herself. The only nod to her penchant for excess are the many stone lanterns—far more than you would expect to find in a Japanese garden this size.

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Bamboos along the edge of the Japanese Garden


Crane statues in pond


The clump of sago palms (Cycas revoluata) adds a tropical touch not often seen in a Japanese garden


View of sago palms from a different angle


Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) and Buddhist pine (Podocarpus macrophylla)

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Colorful Japanese maples along the pond

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Stone lanterns in the Japanese garden


Rustic lantern sheltered by a lace-leaf Japanese maple


Shinto shrine added in 1990, six years after Ganna Walska’s death


Traditional stone lantern


Traditional stone lantern and Cycas revoluta


Sitting Buddha surrounded by a stunning Japanese maple and a blooming camellia


Yet another stone lantern…


…and another one


Variegated juniper (Juniperus cv., left) and holly olive (Osmanthus heterophylla ‘Argenteo-marginatus’, right)


Part 2 of my Lotusland coverage features 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.

Part 5 wraps things up with a tour of the Cactus Garden.



  1. Thank you for sharing these photos and your insight with us, the place is absolutely stunning! It's on our list of top places to visit especially after it has been featured in Around The World in 80 Gardens.

    Looking forward to the next instalment already!

    1. I watched Monty Don's segment on Lotusland last night ( Fabulous aerial views! I wish he'd done one episode just on Lotusland. There's a lot he wasn't able to cover.

  2. Incredible place, would love to visit some day. The excellent way you have organized and narrated this has given me the best understanding of the gardens that I have seen.

    Can't wait for the next installment!

    1. Thank you, Shirley. I was trying hard to organize my posts as logically as possible so anybody who hasn't been to Lotusland can use them to prepare for their visit.

  3. Such wonderful images to spark my memories of visiting this magical place. You were very smart to do both the docent tour and an independent visit. While I enjoyed wandering on our own it would have been nice to learn more about the woman and the garden than we did on our own.

    I can't wait to see the rest of your pictures!!! Thanks for doing this one up so well Gerhard.

    1. Lotusland is the most stunning botanical garden I've ever visited, and I wanted to do it justice.

  4. What a wonderful, wonderful post. This is truly a place I must visit. Your history of the garden is very interesting and great reading. I can't wait to see more.

    1. Candy, just wait until I get to the succulents. OMG, you would have fainted. You should swing by there on your next trip to Southern California.

  5. Great images! I've been dying to go here and this makes me want to go even more!


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