Lotusland 2024: everything but succulents


The name alone evokes visions of an exotic place shrouded in mystery. And that’s exactly what it is: a fantastical garden full of mystique.

Above all, Lotusland is the singular expression of one woman’s taste and tenacity. That woman was Ganna Walska, or Madame as she is still called today. Born Hanna Puacz in 1887 in the Polish town of Brest-Litovsk, then part of the Russian Empire, she changed her name to Ganna Walska when she entered the world of opera. Gifted with a remarkable voice and a passion for music, she pursued vocal training and made her debut as a singer in Warsaw at the age of 17. Her talent quickly garnered attention, leading her to perform in cities like St. Petersburg, Paris, and Vienna.

Ganna Walska ca. 1941

It wasn’t just Ganna’s vocal prowess that captivated audiences; her striking beauty added to her allure. She became known not only for her singing, but also for her glamorous lifestyle, often mingling with high society figures and attracting admirers wherever she went.

Ganna’s personal life was as dramatic as the operas she performed. She was married six times, each union (and divorce) almost always more lucrative than the other. Among her husbands were industrialists, aristocrats, and even a yogi master. She was married to the latter, husband #6, when she bought the 37-acre estate in Montecito, a few miles south of Santa Barbara, in 1941 for $40,000 (equivalent to $850,000 in today’s dollars). 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 the yogi master soon fell apart. Turning her back on men for good, she decided to invest all her energy and her considerable fortune into creating a botanical wonderland unlike anything that had ever been done before. She renamed it Lotusland after the sacred lotus growing in one of her ponds.

Ganna Walska in 1957 (photo by J.R. Eyerman)

For the next 43 years, until her death in 1984, Ganna worked tirelessly on refining her garden. She 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 of a cactus when you can have a hundred?

What may have seemed excessive at the time turned out to be a stroke of genius. Without Madame’s “more is more” philosophy, Lotusland wouldn’t be what it is today. As she famously wrote in her 1943 autobiography Room at the Top: “I am an enemy of the average. My mind is either too destructive or too natural, for I prefer nothing at all rather than mediocrity.”

In 1971, she auctioned off much of her jewelry collection and invested the proceeds, almost $1 million, in her cycad garden, now considered one of the preeminent cycad collections in the world.

Ganna’s vision for Lotusland was not just about showcasing rare and beautiful plants; it was also about creating an immersive experience for visitors. She saw the garden as a place of inspiration and rejuvenation, a sanctuary where people could connect with nature and find inner peace. She was intimately involved in every aspect of the garden, considering herself the “head gardener.”

Today, Lotusland (or Ganna Walska Lotusland, as it’s officially called) is more than just a botanical garden. It’s a collection of gardens, as many as 18, 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 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. If this sounds over the top, it’s because it is. The overall effect is like walking through a dream. This is the playground of an eccentric individual with an unlimited imagination and a flair for the dramatic. And through sheer luck, it has been kept for us to see.

Ganna Walska in 1957 (photo by J.R. Eyerman)

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 (Montecito is one of the wealthiest zip codes in the country). 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.

Plaque at Lotusland

Ganna Walska had a long and tumultuous life (she died in 1984 at the age of 96). She came from humble beginnings in Poland, married well, and divorced even better. Her ambition to become an opera singer may have exceeded her talent (as rumor has it), but she pursued that dream just as doggedly as she pursued her dream of creating “the most outstanding center of horticultural significance.”

Her autobiography, Always Room at the Top, was published in 1943 when Lotusland was still in its infancy so it doesn’t cover the Lotusland years. This article by Ariel Swartley published in the Los Angeles Times in March 2005 does a great job introducing the gardens. For a more in-depth treatment of Ganna’s tumultuous life, read this 2022 article in Frederic Magazine. For a quick overview of the history of the property prior to Lotusland, check this Wikipedia article.

In 2022, Rizzoli published a lavish coffee table book on Lotusland, appropriately titled Lotusland, with photography by Lisa Romerein. Except for a foreword, afterword, and introductions to the individual gardens at Lotusland, it’s nothing but photos, one more evocative than the other. It’s not cheap ($60 MSRP), but it’s an immersive experience – the next best thing to seeing Lotusland in person.

Lotusland book cover with photography by Lisa Romerein

I visited Lotusland for the first time in 2013 and wrote a 5-part post about the various gardens (portions of the introduction above were taken from that post). I highly recommend you check it out. Start here.

Recently, I had the opportunity to revisit Lotusland and explore it at my own pace. I took too many photos to fit into one post, so I’m breaking it up into two parts: “Everything but succulents” (this post) and “Only succulents” (here). My goal wasn’t to cover every single garden in a methodical fashion, but rather walk around with my eyes wide open and let serendipity be my guide.

Main drive with kentia palms

Cycad Garden

The 1.5-acre Cycad Garden is the last garden Ganna Walska was involved in designing. To finance it, she auctioned off the most significant pieces of her jewelry collection in 1971, netting almost a $1 million ($8 million in today’s dollars). When she set her mind on something, she didn’t stop until she got it. With more than 150 species of cycads from around the world, the Cycad Garden is considered one of the finest cycad collections in the world.

It was sunny when I walked through the Cycad Garden and the light was far too contrasty for good photos, so I only took a few.

Tropical Garden

Located under a dense tree canopy, the Tropical Garden is full of large-leaved exotic plants that give it a rainforest feel. Baskets of epiphytic cacti hang from many of the trees.

Japanese Garden

At more than 1.5 acres, the Japanese Garden is the largest themed garden at Lotusland – and also the most structured. The Japanese Garden’s original architect, Frank Fuji, took care of it for 40 years and masterfully balanced Ganna Walska’s maximalist tendencies (somehow she had amassed a collection of more than 30 Japanese stone lanterns!) with the simplicity inherent in this kind of garden.

In 2019, the Japanese Garden reopened after an 11-year renovation. The multi-million-dollar project fixed a multitude of maintenance deficiencies, created accessible paths, and incorporated a viewing deck that had been part of the original plans but had never been built.

Bromeliad Garden

The Bromeliad Garden was created in the late 1960s with the help of Fritz Kubisch, the owner of a tropical plant nursery in Southern California. Ganna Walska helped finance his collecting expeditions to Mexico and Central America. The Bromeliad Garden is home to hundreds of bromeliads, epiphytic and terrestrial, which thrive in the shady space. I have a thing for Spanish moss, actually a tillandsia (Tillandsia usneoides), and couldn’t help run my hands through the curtains of Spanish moss hanging from tree branches.

Fern Garden

The Fern Garden is home to a large variety of ferns, large and small. For me, though, it was all about the tree ferns. I’ve tried many times to grow the hardier species like Dicksonia antarctica and Sphaeropteris cooperi, but I’ve never been able to keep them alive for more than a few years – our summers are just too hot for their liking. There are few things I find more beautiful than tree ferns silhouetted against the sky, and I indulged myself photographically.

Water Garden

The centerpiece of the Water Garden is what used to be the swimming pool, built by the previous owners, the Gavit family, in the 1920s. In the summer months, hundreds of Asian lotus flowers float on the surface. It must be an unforgettable sight. Someday I’ll get to see it.

Dracaena Circle

The Dracaena Circle across from the main house is home to magnificent specimens of Dracaena draco. Native to the Canary Islands and a few other islands off the Atlantic coast of Africa, the dragon tree looks like it came straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. The oldest specimen was planted in the 1890s by Kinton Stevens who operated a tropical plant nursery on the property at the time.

As you look at the fantastically branched dragon trees below, bear in mind that they don’t branch until they’re 10 to 15 years old. Each additional pair of branches represents another 10 years, and so on.

In addition to the gardens covered in this post, there are many I didn’t explore in depth: the Palmetum, Cypress Allée, Australian Garden, Blue Garden, Theatre Garden, Olive Allée, Topiary Garden, Rose Garden, Insectary Garden, and the orchards. If any of these gardens are more to your liking than the things that caught my fancy, you’ll love Lotusland as much as I did.

Click here to go to part 2.


From my 2013 visit:

From my 2019 visit:

© Gerhard Bock, 2024. All rights reserved. To receive all new posts by email, please subscribe here.


  1. Lotusland is not far from my sister's home and I have been there a few times. Your photos bring it all back to me. They are wonderful! Thanks Gerhard!

  2. ! I still haven't been, I'll be there again in June - I just have to add an extra day to see this garden. Thank you for the fantastic post, I'm heading to your other posts now!

    1. Be sure to book your visit in advance. It is required there.

  3. This is a wonderful post, Gerhard. Even though I lived in Santa Barbara for 4 years as an undergrad, I've only visited Lotusland once on a relatively restrictive guided tour. You've reminded me that I need to make a point of scheduling a return visit. Maybe I'll add that to my Christmas wish list this year ;)

  4. Great (and comprehensive) post! Lovely photos, especially of the shapes of the large trees against the sky.

  5. I often wonder, as these historical gardens grow older, what their original creators would think of them. I suspect that Ganna would still recognize a lot. After all, it has only been 40 years since her death. I do wonder what she might find surprising though.


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