Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Visiting Lotusland — 1

Lotusland is one of the top garden attractions in California. Located in a quiet residential area in the upscale community of Montecito just east of Santa Barbara, it's only open from mid-February to mid-November and advance reservations are required (as per city regulations, only a limited number of visitors are allowed per day).

I was lucky to have the opportunity to roam free during the 2019 Bromeliad Summit. I made the most of the time I had available and took hundreds of photos—enough for three posts. This is part 1 of 3.

High drama near the main house

The history of Ganna Walska Lotusland, as it's officially called, is as quirky as the 20 different sections that make up this 37-acre estate. The property was purchased in 1941 by former opera diva and socialite Madame Ganna Walska 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 highly lucrative divorces—into creating a botanical wonderland unlike anything that had ever been seen before.

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 talented and dedicated gardeners, garden designers and landscape architects. Instead, she 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 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.

Cactus on the right, cactus-like euphorbias on the left

The cactus near the house are grouped by color

The silver cactus have an aura of pure silver when side- and backlit

Today, Lotusland is more than just a botanical garden. It's a collection of gardens, as many as 20 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 us to see.

Road leading away from the main house, with cactus on the left and euphorbias on the right

Silver cactus with a tree-like euphorbia in the middle

Flowering Cleistocactus sp.

Flowering Echinopsis sp.

Towering Euphorbia ammak 'Variegata'


Tree-like euphorbias in cream and green


More euphorbias

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.

The silver columnar cactus you saw earlier give way to an expanse of golden barrels

“Hooray for the golden barrels!,” Madame Walska once wrote in a letter to a cactus supplier. “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.”



I can't help but think what would have happened if she'd 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 Madame 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.

The very front of the house is flanked by Lotusland's most famous cacti, weeping Euphorbia ingens

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.

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 would be it

Hey, that sign is meant for us!

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, Madame 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 door and offer to buy it.

If money didn’t do the trick, she had a case of champagne delivered.

Much more in parts 2 and 3.

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5 comments:

  1. A visit to Lotusland is always welcome ! The great thing about visiting a garden with a restrictive use permit is that it's never crowded. I always feel like a guest when I drive through the gates.

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  2. The photos of the dragon trees are tremendous. I visited Lotusland years before I started blogging and I've got no photos of my visit, which was a surprise birthday present from a friend. I must get back there.

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  3. Madame Walska sounds like a true eccentric. She would have been an interesting person to know. Her garden reflects her quirky personality.

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  4. Thanks for this trip back in time, what a day. Your photos are true escapism.

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  5. The Dragon Tree forest is astounding!

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