Ganna Walska Lotusland 2

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While Lotusland has many native trees, like coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), the most beautiful trees are the thousands of palms growing on the property. Quite a few date back to the estate’s first owner, Kinton Stevens, who operated an exotic plant nursery in the late 1800s. Ganna Walska continued to increase the collection during the 40 years she lived at Lotusland. The story has it that leading up to a visit from the Palm Society Ganna Walska was so nervous that her collection of palm trees, which featured decades-old rarities from Kinton Stevens’ nursery, wouldn’t be impressive enough that she had truckloads of additional specimens hauled in.

Walking through Lotusland, I was very happy that Madame Walska hadn’t held back. The number and variety of palm trees is mind-boggling. I had never seen anything like it on my travels—not even in Hawaii where, yes, there is definitely no shortage of palm trees, but they are mostly the same kind. I’m not a palm connoisseur but I thoroughly appreciated the many different shapes and patterns in the trunks and fronds.


Many different kinds of palm trees along the main road


Kentia palms (Howea forsteriana)


Blue glass lining the walkway through a palm grove



The Blue Garden seems to be the one everybody talks about. As the name suggests, the focus is on the color blue. In its original incarnation it featured plants with blue flowers, like delphiniums, but Madame Walska and her garden designer Ralph Stevens (son of Kinton Stevens, the original owner) quickly moved from flowers to plants with glaucous foliage.

The effect is mysterious and even a bit eerie, especially in the section dominated by gnarled blue Atlas cedars (Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca’). Their phantasmagoric shapes reminded me of the topiary in Stephen King’s The Shining and, frankly, gave me slight chills.

The blue-green chunks of glass lining the walkways came from the slag heap of a nearby bottling plant. Madame Walska loved these fist-sized pieces of glass because they reminded her of jewelry, another thing she liked to collect.


Mexican blue palm (Brahea armata)


Mexican blue palm (Brahea armata) and blue chalk fingers (Senecio mandraliscae)


Chilean wine palm (Jubaea chilensis) and blue fescue (Festuca ovina var. glauca)


Agaves undulating like undersea creatures under towering palm trees


Gardener working in the blue garden


Blue Atlas cedars (Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca’)


Blue Atlas cedars (Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca’)


Agave franzosinii and Yucca species


Agave franzosinii


Agave franzosinii


Agave franzosinii


Agave franzosinii


Echeveria elegans


Echeveria elegans



The Cycad Garden forms a stark contrast to the other gardens at Lotusland. It is located in an exposed spot which in the late 1800s used to be first owner Kinton Stevens’ grain field, and it basks in the sun for a good part of the day. On my visit, the temperature difference between the shady glen of the Tropical Garden and the Cycad Garden must have been 20°, especially when I was walking around on my own in the afternoon.


Lepidozama peroffskyana (eastern Australia)

In addition, the Cycad Garden is completely unadorned with the exception of the rocks lining the walkways and an occasional bench. The garden ornaments so prevalent in other parts of Lotusland are missing entirely. This was clearly a conscious decision, quite possibly made to let the remarkable cycads in this collection shine without any made-made distractions.


Cycad Garden panorama

The Cycad Garden was the last garden created by Ganna Walska. She financed it by auctioning off a large part of her jewelry collection in 1977, which brought in almost a million dollars.

Since Madame Walska never did anything half-heartedly, she sought out the rarest and most mature cycad specimens that were available at the time. Sparing no expense, she created the most complete cycad collection in any public garden in the U.S. Today it contains over 900 specimens from over half of all known cycad species and nine of the eleven genera still extant.


Gardener hand-watering cycads


Gardener hand-watering cycads

Cycads are an ancient group of plants. For a long time it was thought that they were a dominant part of the vegetation during the Jurassic Period, the age of the dinosaurs, but recent research has proven otherwise. Still, the docents at Lotusland play the dinosaur trump card, which is perfectly fine with me since it gets adults and children alike excited about plants they might otherwise not pay much attention to.


Cycads and palm trees

I love cycads and I was on cloud nine seeing so many different species. It was like being magically sucked into the pages of Loran Whitelock’s encyclopedic book The Cycads, the definitive reference on cycads (unfortunately out of print). Loran Whitelock is a leading cycad expert and has one of the world’s premier private collections. Many of the plants in Lotusland’s Cycad Garden originally came from him.

Like all plants that are rare and expensive (think orchids!), cycads attract an odd assortment of collectors. Being obsessed is the first prerequisite. Having money is another. Some obsessed collectors who don’t have the money resort to much shadier means to expand their collection. I highly recommend reading this New York Times article from 2003. It touches on cycads in general, Lotusland, and the seedy side of collecting.


Dioon mejiae (Honduras, Nicaragua)


Dioon merolae (Mexico)


Dioon spinulosum (Mexico)


Encephalartos heenanii (Swaziland), very rare and critically endangered in its native habitat


Encephalartos paucidentatus (Transvaal through Swaziland)


Encephalartos whitelockii (endemic to a single location in western Uganda), named in honor of Loran Whitelock


Encephalartos longifolius (South Africa), a fairly common species and one of the most beautiful


Encephalartos transvenosus (South Africa)


A nice place to sit in the Cycad Garden


Encephalartos concinnus (Zimbabwe, Mozambique)


Encephalartos altensteinii (South Africa)


Encephalartos trispinosus (South Africa), one of the sought-after “blue cycads”


Encephalartos lehmannii (South Africa), the most common blue cycad and my personal favorite


Encephalartos lehmannii (South Africa)


Encephalartos lehmannii (South Africa)


Encephalartos horridus (South Africa), very spiny and very desirable


Encephalartos horridus (South Africa)


Encephalartos horridus (South Africa)


Encephalartos friderici-guilielmi (South Africa)

And finally there is Encephalartos woodii, the rarest of all cycads. It is completely extinct in the wild and all specimens found in collections around the world are offsets from one clump of male plants originally discovered in 1895. Unfortunately, cycads need both a male and a female plant to reproduce. We will never see seeds of Encephalartos woodii, hence it will always remain one of the rarest plants in the world.

In typical Ganna Walska fashion, she obtained not only one Encephalartos woodii for her Cycad Garden, but three. Today they look down at a small pond as if doomed to stare at their own image, knowing they will never be able to mate.


Encephalartos woodii


While the Fern Garden is located next to the main house, not near the Cycad Garden, ferns do resemble cycads in shape and texture so I thought this would be a good segue.

The Fern Garden was originally created in 1968 around Ganna Walska’s collection of Australian tree ferns (Cyathea cooperi) and features many different shade-loving plants. On a hot day, it is the perfect refuge from the Southern California sun.


Fern Garden


Looking towards the entrance to the Fern Garden, with the dragon tree forest in the background (see Ganna Walska Lotusland 3)


Cibotium schiedei, a Mexican tree fern

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Bird’s nest fern (Asplenium antiquum) and Farfugium japonicum varieties


Farfugium japonicum ‘Aureomaculatum’

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Farfugium japonicum ‘Argenteum


Staghorn fern (Platycerium sp.)


Path through Fern Garden


Gnarled coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) in Fern Garden


Australian tree fern (Cyathea cooperi)


Australian tree fern (Cyathea cooperi)



Like much of the Fern Garden, the Bromeliad Garden is located under the canopy of coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia). I’m familiar with the terrestrial bromeliads that are generically treated like succulents, i.e. puyas, dyckias, hechtias, etc. but I’m a complete novice when it comes to tropical bromeliads—the ones with colorful leaves you typically find in the houseplant section of nurseries. Santa Barbara’s climate is so mild (temperatures very rarely drop down to freezing) that many of them can be grown in the open.


Small tree fern underplanted with colorful bromeliads

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LEFT: Impressive flower spike of an unidentified bromeliad
RIGHT: What is left of a Puya flower spike. It must have been quite a sight to see at its peak!


Colorful bromeliads in the ground

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Epiphytic bromeliads attached to tree stumps


Vriesea fosteriana


Exotic wonderland of plants


More bromeliads

I was happy to find quite a few succulents on the edge of the Bromeliad garden.


Tylecodon dinteri


Aloe plicatilis and Aeonium species


Succulents planted in the crevices of a large boulder

The Bromeliad Garden is bordered by impressive stands of ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata). I had never seen so many specimens in one place. Truly a remarkable sight!


Ponytail palms (Beaucarnea recurvata)


Ponytail palms (Beaucarnea recurvata)


Ponytail palms (Beaucarnea recurvata)


Part 1 of my Lotusland coverage features the Visitor Center and Australian Garden, the Tropical Garden and the Japanese 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. And there's more to come? Wow! This garden is a perfect fusion of drama, beauty, and horticultural interest.

    1. Much more to come. I want to make sure I do Lotusland justice.

      I love your description. You captured the magic of Lotusland in a nutshell.

  2. Lovin every minute of it!

    I have no memory whatsoever of the Blue Atlas Cedar in the Blue Garden. Granted I might not have been so obsessed then but they also look kind of young. Do they indeed date to Ms Walska's time?

  3. What a great job you did reporting on this wonderful garden. I don't know what your strategy was , but after my first visit I bought a membership so that I could wander around at my own pace .. the docent led tour did not work well with taking photos.. I'm ready for a return trip.

  4. "The number and variety of palm trees is mind-boggling."

    Couldn't agree more..

  5. What an amazing place & a wonderful tour you're sharing with us! Madame Walska sounds like she was quite a character!

  6. God I miss California and the palm trees. Great pictures....I felt like I was there myself!! You really inspire me to get out there and take pictures!!


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