Ganna Walska Lotusland 4

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If I had to pick out my favorite spot in all of Lotusland, this might be it. There is something so peaceful and serene, and it’s achingly beautiful. If I were a plein air painter, this is where I would want to set up my easel and paint away until the light begins to fade.

What is now the Water Garden once was the swimming pool of the estate’s second owners, the Gavit family. It was built in 1925; the pool house was designed by George Washington Smith, a leading proponent of the Spanish Colonial Revival style that gives much of Santa Barbara its distinctive look. Ganna Walska transformed the swimming pool into a pond and stocked it with Asian lotus, the inspiration for the name “Lotusland.” According to our docent, the Water Garden is a riot of color in the summer when the lotus start to bloom.


  Lotus pond and pool house


Closer view of pool house; notice the pride of Madeira (Echium candicans) in bloom

As you climb a low rise from the Water Garden to the main road, the scenery changes dramatically. The lush greenery of the water-loving plants is replaced by the more muted blue-gray palette of succulents. First a planting bed with nothing but Queen Victoria agave (Agave victoria-reginae)…


Lotus pond; Agave victoria-reginae planting bed in the foreground

…then a row of Agave gypsophila, flanked by stately tree euphorbias and a thicket of crown-of-thorns (Euphorbia milii).


View of pool house from the main road; notice row of Agave gypsophila


Agave gypsophila; several are getting ready to flower

A few steps further, and you’re at main road. You’ve now reached the heart of Lotusland, and what you’re about to see will take your breath away.


The road to the main house is flanked by majestic stands of cacti. Except that only the plants on the right are actually cacti. The ones on the left are euphorbias. In a textbook case of convergent evolution, the two groups show astonishing similarities even though they’re not related at all (cacti are from the New World, succulent euphorbias from the Old World, mostly Africa).

Adding these cacti and euphorbias was one of the first changes Ganna Walska made after purchasing the property in 1941. Considering that these plants are not exactly fast growers, Madame was clearly planning for the future. She knew that the transformation she had in mind would be years—decades—in the making. Was she ever impatient, wondering if she would ever see her vision come to full fruition?


Main road flanked by cacti (right) and euphorbias (left)


Main road flanked by cacti (right) and euphorbias (left)


Main road flanked by cacti (right) and euphorbias (left)


“Old man of the Andes”-type cacti from South America


Impressive tree euphorbias


Euphorbia ammak ‘Variegata’ (white) and Euphorbia ingens (green)


Euphorbia ammak ‘Variegata’ (white) and Euphorbia ingens (green)

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Euphorbia ammak ‘Variegata’

Now we’re getting our first glimpse of the main house. But it’s not the house itself that draws our eye, it’s the expanse of cacti in front of it. I don’t know how many individual stems there are, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are thousands. It’s almost overwhelming.


Main house with expanse of columnar cacti


Many of the cacti are now as tall as the house


Backlit cacti


Backlit cacti

Closer to the house, the columnar cacti give way to golden barrel cacti (Echinocactus grusonii). Not just a dozen or two, but again, hundreds of them!

In a letter to a cactus supplier, Madame Walska once wrote: “Hooray for the golden barrels! Even though you don’t write how big or how small they are…[I] want to have a monopoly for all barrels, grandfather, mothers or babies.”


Golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii)


Golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii)


Golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii)

But the most famous succulents at Lotusland are the weeping Euphorbia ingens planted in front of the main house.


Main house with Euphorbia ingens


Euphorbia ingens, weeping form

Everybody who visits Lotusland takes photos of them because they are so bizarre. They look like tortured sculptures—deformed pillars of melted and resolidified wax straight out of a Salvador Dalí painting. If ever a plant epitomized Madame Walska’s taste for the unusual, this is it.

I remember these weeping Euphorbia ingens from the very first photo of Lotusland I ever saw, but the dramatic effect of their monstrous presence is even more pronounced when you stand in front of them. These aren’t ornamental plants designed to beautify your garden; they are extraterrestrial life forms come to Earth to keep an eye on us.


Euphorbia ingens, weeping form


Euphorbia ingens, weeping form


Euphorbia ingens, weeping form


Euphorbia ingens, weeping form


Euphorbia ingens, weeping form

The high drama continues right across the courtyard from the main house. Here Madame Walska planted more than 60 dragon trees (Dracaena draco) in a space that really is much too small for them. The result is a dense miniature forest unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Apparently, she loved dragon trees so much that she scoured Montecito and Santa Barbara for specimens. When she spotted a particularly nice one in somebody’s garden, she had her chauffeur knock on the front door and offer to buy it. If money didn’t do the trick, she had a case of champagne delivered.


Dragon tree (Dracaena draco)


Dragon tree (Dracaena draco)


Dragon tree (Dracaena draco)


Dragon tree (Dracaena draco)



With all the amazing plants surrounding it, it’s easy to overlook that the house itself is beautiful in its own right. Built in 1919 in the Mediterranean Revival Style, it looks well proportioned against the gardens. While large (close to 9,000 sq.ft.), it’s not the monster mansion found elsewhere in the hills of Santa Barbara today. With its pinkish hue, it makes a subtle statement without clobbering you over the head. I wouldn’t say no if they asked me to live there.


View of the main house from the Parterre Garden


Main house patio


Beautifully tiled fountain on patio

Curiously enough, Ganna Walska never actually lived in the main house. She used it to store the stuff she brought with her from her former life—including furniture from the French château she used to own—but she chose to live in the guest house adjacent to the main residence. Surprisingly small, it is nestled under tall trees and surrounded on one side by extensive plantings of bromeliads. As fond as she was of grand gestures in her gardens, she clearly preferred something much more moderate as her personal space.


Guest house where Madame Walska lived


Guest house


Huge oak tree in front of guest house

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Burrito sedum (Sedum morganianum) hanging in a tree near the guest house


View from the guest house of Agave franzosinii in Blue Garden

Located behind the main house, the Parterre Garden is so formal, it almost looks out of place. I must admit I didn’t spend much time here because it was too austere for my taste.


Parterre Garden with tile mosaics

The Topiary Garden beyond the Parterre Garden features a “zoo” of 26 topiary animals. For some reason, I forgot to photograph it, but here is the 25-ft. succulent clock originally created in 1955. I wish I’d had a tall ladder to get a better view from above.


Succulent clock


While fruit trees aren’t the first thing that comes to when you think of Lotusland—or even the last—the orchards are quite extensive. The citrus orchard has oranges, lemons, limes, kumquat and guavas while the deciduous orchard contains over 100 fruit trees (peach, plum, apples and the like) as well as olive trees from the 1880s.


Citrus orchard behind main house


Orange trees


Orange trees and Insectary (left)

A word about the Insectary, a.k.a. the Butterfly Garden: The plants in this area are grown as food for beneficial insects. Lotusland has been a leader in sustainable gardening practices and has been using nothing but compost tea for disease control—apparently with resounding success.


Lemon arbor


Olive allée


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



  1. These posts must be taking you quite a long time to put together, they are so well written, informative and of course the photos...a major wow! Thank you Gerhard!

    1. It takes longer than I thought. Originally I'd planned on doing two Lotusland posts but I have so many photos, I decided to go whole hog. I'm happy you're finding them enjoyable to read.

  2. I was thinking of adjectives to say after whilst looking at the photos and reading your well written post, but I've ran out...

    Simply stunning sums it up! Thank you thank you for sharing your visit, we must visit this garden very soon...

    1. LOL, I'm running out of adjectives myself. Lotusland is so unique that it's hard to find a frame of reference. I'll touch on that in my final post.

  3. I just keep thinking how misleading the name "Lotusland" is. This place is a wonder in so many ways. The weeping euphorbias: you can keep those. Blech. (perhaps they're more impressive in person)

    Love the thorough tour though!

    1. The weeping euphorbias are impressive as you stand next to them. Beautiful? No. Weird? Heck yes! I bet they're even creepier in the moonlight. To me they looked like vegetation you'd see in a sci-fi movie.

  4. I have loved looking at all of these photos! Thank you so much for sharing all of them. It has provided a very nice virtual tour :)

  5. I have so much catching up to do! Incredible place and incredible photos my friend!


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