Spilled across 37 acres purchased for $40,000 in 1941, Ganna Walska Lotusland in Montecito, CA, remains one of the most whimsical, most wildly fabulous gardens we’ve ever explored.
To the tune of: 300+ species of cacti alone, a “theatre garden” populated with antique grotesque sculptures, and a garden dedicated entirely to blue foliage. Here you will find rare cycads (obtained with the assistance of auctioned jewelry) planted on a cliff, looking glamorously nonchalant above a koi pond.
Flashback Friday! In 2009, Ryan and I visited Ganna Walska Lotusland in Montecito, CA, near Santa Barbara.
There are more than 300 species of cacti on the property, and that’s just scratching the surface. Here, cactus groupie Ryan gets a prickly portrait. (I think he’s lookin’ good, but Ryan asks that you disregard the calf-length cargoes he says were all the rage back then.)
Just a giant clamshell fountain pouring into an abalone shell-lined pool, NBD. (With a Chilean wine palm in the background!)
Madame Ganna Walska initially called her estate Tibetland, intending it to be a retreat for Tibetan monks. When WWII prevented the monks from traveling to the U.S., Madame renamed her utopia Lotusland.
Behold the leafy legacy of Ganna Walska, a Polish-born opera singer who toured the world and married six times. If Lotusland feels expansive and ambitious but also intensely personal, it’s because Madame Walska, after repairing to the Best Coast following stints in Paris and NYC, was deeply involved in the design, care and development of her garden until the last few years of her life. Born Hanna Puacz in 1887 in Belarus, Ganna Walska died in 1984 at the age of 96 inside her Lotusland.
Sure, the phrase “aha moment” gets thrown around more than slugs in summertime. But indeed our July 2009 visit to Lotusland was pure eureka, an afternoon that would launch our own garden into an entirely new direction.
Beneath the complicated canopy of a dragon tree (Dracaena draco). The red sap of this succulent plant was used by the ancient Egyptians for embalming, and has also been used as paint.
After the tour, we also beached.
We took the trip for our first wedding anniversary (“the paper anniversary”? Ppfff! More like the plant anniversary) to see the garden’s marquee lotus flowers in bloom. Initially we balked at the price of the admission, which today costs $45 per person, but trust us, it’s worth it. Tours (which must be reserved in advance) are limited to a small handful of people, and are led by charming docents who know the last detail of the grounds, who pepper in the right amount of gossip with all the hort info. Ryan and I were riveted: this is gardening as theater. Gardening as a personal mission statement. Gardening as a never-ending love.
Madame was a maximalist.
Lotusland is out there, and we’re into it. There are 18 separate gardens on the property, ranging from Japanese to Australian to tropical to topiary, flowing together with a grace that’s disarming. When we saw how a garden could be made so obsessively, so eccentrically one’s own (and yet, so interesting to outsiders!), we got to work making our yard into what it is today.
On this sunny Flashback Friday, join us for a tour of Ganna Walska Lotusland from July 2009. Below you will find a sea of roses in spectacular bloom, two-story euphorbias, ancient gingkoes, abalone landscaping, plus two baby-faced bloggers about to have their lives rocked forever…
Visits and tours are by reservation only. We purchased a one-year membership so we would have the option to come back throughout the year if we found ourselves on the Central Coast again.
An enchanting forest of Agave attenuata (foxtail agave) provides one of the first impressions entering the gardens.
The Japanese Garden
A Japanese maple hovers above a Buddha statue.
Our docent describes the vast colection of trees that Madame Walska brought into Lotusland.
Rose she-oak or forest oak (Allocasuarina torulosa).
A small Shinto shrine was added in 1990 under the guidance of garden designer Koichi Kawana.
Possibly the first ginkgo biloba that we’d ever seen up close. Per Sir Wiki, ginkgoes are living fossils, “similar to fossils dating back 270 million years.”
The Aloe Garden
This garden contains over 170 species of aloe.
Fan aloe (Aloe plicatilis)
Tree aloe (Aloe barbarae).
More Aloe mitriformis.
A beautifully thrashed-looking Aloe thraskii.
The Water Garden
In the water garden, I try to get my point across through use of claw fingers.
During our visit, the purple flowers of the agapanthus were in bloom. The water garden was established on what used to be the property’s swimming pool.
Asian lotus (Nelumbo nucifera).
Beautiful, aren’t they?
Although they’re sometimes mentioned interchangeably, water lilies (above) are not closely related to lotuses.
Euphorbia and Cacti Collection
Euphorbia ingens stand tall amongst 50+ species of euphorbia.
Euphorbia ingens ‘Weeping Form.’
Black rose succulent (Aeonium arboreum ‘Zwartkop’).
Hundreds of golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grussonii) irradiate the entrance to the house.
The Fern Garden
Deep in the fern garden, you’ll stumble into a swimming pool with colossal clamshells basking in the sun around the pool’s perimeter.
Baby tears mortar the stone path.
The peltate (shield-shaped) leaves of the Begonia ‘Lotusland’ chill in the shade above a groundcover of baby tears.
The Parterre and Butterfly Garden
On the left, red canna lilies are in bloom.
The ID of this plant has us stumped! Please send help…UPDATE: commenter Catherine Stewart says this is a post-bloom Echium candicans (pride of Madeira), and Virginia Hayes, curator of Lotusland’s living collection, confirms! Thanks, Catherine and Virginia.
Lion’s tail (Leonotis leonurus).
The dove house.
Entering the Parterre’s formal rose garden…
The Cactus Garden
Opuntia grows in a garden featuring 300+ species of cacti.
The Cactus Garden opened in 2004, with legions of columnar specimens donated by Merritt Dunlap, a longtime friend of Madame Walska. About 40 percent of these plants were grown from seed.
Dig the chilly tone of this Armatocereus from Peru.
Espostoa species cactus.
Espostoa huanucoensis from Ecuador and Peru.
Old man cactus (Cephalocereus senilis).
Antique stone “grotesques” (which are actually quite cute) enchant the Theatre Garden.
The Succulent Garden
Panda plant (Kalanchoe tomentosa).
The Blue Garden
Inside the Blue Garden, an atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica cv. Glauca Pendula) dangles above tufts of blue fescue and Mexican blue palms. All the plants in this section were chosen by Madame Walska for their silvery or blue-gray foliage.
Toward the rear of the garden is a bunya-bunya pine (Araucaria bidwillii), a conifer from Australia.
The cones of the bunya-bunya pine (Araucaria bidwillii).
The Cycad Garden
Encephalartos species of cycad.
One of the rarest plants in the world, Encephalartos woodii is a cycad that’s gone extinct in the wild.
At the gift shop we picked up some succulents, including a monstrose totem pole cactus.
Burro’s tail succulent.
For an aerial view of the garden, check out the video below, produced by Lotusland itself:
Flying Through Lotusland from Lotusland on Vimeo.