Lotusland 2024: only succulents

Part 1 of my post about my recent visit to Ganna Walska Lotusland in Montecito, California, is all about non-succulent plants. It also gives an overview of Ganna Walska’s life and the history of Lotusland. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend that you do to have a better understanding of what was important to Madame as she continued to develop her gardens.

Part 2 is about nothing but succulents. Ganna Walska liked cacti and other succulents for their architectural qualities, so there are a lot of them. In fact, some of Lotusland’s best known sights are in this category, like the thousands of cacti and cactus-like euphorbias around the main house:

Around the main house

Almost immediately after she bought the estate in 1941, Ganna Walska tasked landscape architect Lockwood de Forest with finding mature cacti and succulents to replace the traditional landscaping around the main house. That was a highly unusual choice back then, but it very much reflected her fondness for mass plantings. Now, the dramatic Euphorbia ingens with their bizarrely twisting arms in front of the house and the forests of succulents along the main drive – New World cacti on one side, Old World euphorbias on the other – are the among Lotusland’s most recognizable features.

Weeping Euphorbia ingens in April 2019

Unfortunately, the most famous Euphorbia ingens (shown in all its drooping glory in the 2019 photo above) is gone. From a June 29, 2022 post on Lotusland’s Facebook page: “Soon, we will be saying farewell to one of the most iconic plants at Lotusland. Unknown in the wild and uncommon in cultivation, this form of Euphorbia ingens is an enigma and will be missed by everyone. For over 80 years, it has been gracing the pink walls of the main house but is now rapidly declining in health. Through pure serendipity, we found a replacement — a rooted cutting known to have originally come from Lotusland. The Cactus Store in Los Angeles had recently acquired the plant as part of a collection and after learning of our need for a replacement, generously repatriated the plant to Lotusland. We have seedlings and propagations of the original plants in the nursery, but this plant is large and well suited for the spot.”

Replacement Euphorbia ingens in April 2024

The beds in front of and adjacent to the main house are dominated by golden barrels (Echinocactus grusonii). Madame loved them, so she had hundreds of them planted. In the 1950s, Ganna Walska worked extensively with Antonia Crowninshield (1915-2005), a certified botanical field collector from Arizona, who sourced many of golden barrels and other cacti and succulents for her through expeditions to Mexico.

Seen through a contemporary lens, this practice seems unethical at best, criminal at worst (it is illegal in most places today), but it was commonplace back then. In fact, many of the great succulent collections were built that way. The Huntington in San Marino, California, is a prime example: In 1908, William Hertrich, the Huntington’s first superintendent of buildings and grounds, brought in three railway wagons of cacti from Arizona, including a wagon of saguaros. This was followed in 1912 by two wagons of cacti and other succulents from Mexico. The Huntington estate had its own spur line, making rail transport easy.

Along the main drive

The main drive separates New World cacti on one side from Old World euphorbias on the other. They look similar, but they’re not in the same family. They’re simply the product of convergent evolution – unrelated plants independently developing similar features in response to similar environmental pressures.

On the New World side, the most striking feature is a forest of columnar cacti: golden Parodia leninghausii in front of silver Oreocereus hendricksianus, Oreocereus celsianus, and Espostoa lanata – the latter two commonly known as “old man of the Andes.” The plants are impressively tall and dense now; in Madame’s days, they must have been far shorter

The cactus-like euphorbias on the other side of the main drive are no less stunning – especially the tree-like Euphorbia ammak, both the all-green species and the white form.

Agave franzosinii in the Blue Garden

As the name suggests, the Blue Garden features plants with bluish foliage, like blue Atlas cedars (Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca’), Mexican blue palms (Brahea armata), and blue grasses. I didn’t take any pictures in the Blue Garden proper because the light was very contrasty, but I did photograph the most iconic plants there, the massive Agave franzosinii. I’ve never been to Lotusland after dark, but apparently the agaves positively glow on a moonlit night. I believe it – they stand out even on a sunny day.

Aloe Garden

The Aloe Garden isn’t particularly large, but it’s packed with almost 170 different taxa ranging from tiny to massive (think 30 ft. tree aloes). It must be spectacular in the winter when many of them are in bloom.

The focal point of the Aloe Garden, however, isn’t any one plant, it’s the kidney-shaped pond. Originally built as a children’s wading pool by the property’s second owners, the Gavit family (1915 – 1939), it was transformed by Madame in 1958. She had the perimeter of the pool lined with abalone shells arranged to resemble flowering blossoms and the interior painted a very pale blue so it would glow in the moonlight. Two triple-tiered fountains made from giant clam shells complete the under-the-sea theme.

Succulent Garden

Based on its name, the Succulent Garden should be one of my favorites. In reality, I find it a bit underwhelming, probably because it’s dedicated to “soft” succulents. “Hard” succulents like cacti, euphorbias, aloes, and agaves are found elsewhere throughout the garden. The Succulent Garden is home to more than 170 different species so it deserves to be explored in more depth than I did. Here are just two quick photos, one of haworthias and the other of echeverias.

Dunlop Cactus Garden

The transition to the Dunlop Cactus Garden from the gardens around it is so abrupt, it’s almost shocking. Outside is the lush and whimsical Topiary Garden, and inside a stark, austere landscape dominated by towering columnar cacti and rocks, the ground between them mulched with black slate chips.

Entrance to the Dunlop Cactus Garden

The Dunlop Cactus Garden is the newest garden at Lotusland. It was created almost 20 years after Ganna Walska’s death, but it had been in the works for 30+ years. In 1966, San Diego cactus collector Merritt Dunlap, a friend of Madame’s, had expressed his wish to leave his collection to Lotusland. Dunlap had started collecting in 1929. He grew many of his cacti from seed and kept meticulous provenance records.

Dunlap’s wish began to take form in 1999 when Lotusland staff began to transport plants from North San Diego County to Montecito. In total, 530 plants from 300 taxa were rehomed. For each cactus, its sun orientation in Dunlap’s garden was recorded, allowing Lotusland staff to plant the cactus in the same orientation in order to minimize sun damage. To read more about the move, click here.

Plants are divided by country of origin, just like they had been at Dunlap’s home, so walking through the garden is like walking through the great deserts of the New World.

Merritt Dunlap had hoped to see his cacti installed at Lotusland in his lifetime, and his wish came true when the Dunlap Cactus Garden officially opened in 2003. Dunlap was 97 years old then. The first cactus he ever bought, an Echinopsis spachiana, is alive and well at Lotusland.

Creeping devil (Stenocereus eruca)

Creeping devil (Stenocereus eruca)

Cleistocactus smaragdiflorus

Cleistocactus smaragdiflorus

Pilosocereus flowers

Lotusland has been rated one of the 10 best botanical gardens in the world, and in 2019, it was ranked #1 in Gardenista‘s 100 Gardens to Visit Before You Die list. Together with the Huntington and the Ruth Bancroft Garden, it’s one of my favorite gardens.

Visiting Lotusland requires some advance planning. It’s open only from mid-February to mid-November. In addition, because the estate is in a residential area of Montecito, it’s subject to capacity limits restricting the number of daily visitors and vehicles. Tickets aren’t cheap ($60 per adult), but visiting Lotusland is a bucket list experience and worth every penny. Members ($125/year) can visit as often as they like. For more information, and to make reservations, visit the Lotusland website.

I love maps, so here’s a map of the different gardens at Lotusland to give you an extra incentive to visit:

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


  1. Lotusland is a wonderful testimonial to the majesty of succulents. Thanks for sharing your photos, Gerhard.

  2. Gerhard, you’ve got me considering a visit to Lotusland (I’m on East coast). Should I allow an entire day to do it well?

    1. I suggest you contact Lotusland to see how long you can stay in the garden. I don't know if there's a fixed time limit. Also, you should visit Taft Gardens outside of Ojai, about 45 minutes from Santa Barbara. I'll have a post about it soon. You can also check out my previous post from 2019.

  3. Looks like you were lucky enough to get a little overcast Gerhard --photos all look great. I was planning on an SB trip in April but decided to go to Cayucos instead. Next spring perhaps-I'm overdue for a visit.

    1. Weatherwise, I had a bit of everything--except for the fog I had been hoping for :-)

  4. Oh, I really can't get over how great this is. The absolutel woolly mammoth amount of fuzz on that pilocereus! I can't wait to visit.

  5. I am thrilled to have visited 4 times now, what a garden, what a legacy.

  6. The massing certainly gives an otherworldly effect Good thing the weed pressure is so low. That could be a nightmare. The Stenocerus eruca is my clear favorite from this post, like a horizontal espalier.


Post a Comment