Land of Imagination: Inside the Virtuoso Gardens of Ganna Walska Lotusland

Photos by Ryan Benoit

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.

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Flashback Friday! In 2009, Ryan and I visited Ganna Walska Lotusland in Montecito, CA, near Santa Barbara.

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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.)

Chilean wine palm and clamshell fountain

Just a giant clamshell fountain pouring into an abalone shell-lined pool, NBD. (With a Chilean wine palm in the background!)

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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.

Dragon tree (Dracaena draco)

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.

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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…

—TH

Entrance

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.

Agave attenuata (foxtail agave)

An enchanting forest of Agave attenuata (foxtail agave) provides one of the first impressions entering the gardens.

The Japanese Garden

Buddha statue and Japanese maple.

A Japanese maple hovers above a Buddha statue.

Rose she-oak or forest oak (Allocasuarina torulosa)

Our docent describes the vast colection of trees that Madame Walska brought into Lotusland.

Rose she-oak or forest oak (Allocasuarina torulosa)

Rose she-oak or forest oak (Allocasuarina torulosa).

Shinto shrine

A small Shinto shrine was added in 1990 under the guidance of garden designer Koichi Kawana.

Ginkgo biloba

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.”

Hello there!

Hello there!

Water hyacinth

Water hyacinth.

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The Aloe Garden

Fan aloe (Aloe plicatilis)

This garden contains over 170 species of aloe.

Fan aloe (Aloe plicatilis)

Fan aloe (Aloe plicatilis)

Tree aloe (Aloe barbarae)

Tree aloe (Aloe barbarae).

Aloe aculeata

Aloe aculeata.

Aloe mitriformis

Aloe mitriformis.

Aloe mitriformis

More Aloe mitriformis.

Aloe thraskii

A beautifully thrashed-looking Aloe thraskii.

The Water Garden

Water garden

In the water garden, I try to get my point across through use of claw fingers.

Agapanthus

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.

Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera)

Asian lotus (Nelumbo nucifera).

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Nelumbo nucifera, Asian lotus

Beautiful, aren’t they?

Water lilies.

Although they’re sometimes mentioned interchangeably, water lilies (above) are not closely related to lotuses.

 Euphorbia and Cacti Collection

Euphorbia ingens

Euphorbia ingens stand tall amongst 50+ species of euphorbia.

Euphorbia ingens

Euphorbia ingens 'Weeping Form'

Euphorbia ingens ‘Weeping Form.’

Euphorbia ingens

One of 50 + euphorbia species.

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Black rose (Aeonium arboreum 'Zwartkop')

Black rose succulent (Aeonium arboreum ‘Zwartkop’).

Golden Barrel cactus (Echinocactus grussonii)

Hundreds of golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grussonii) irradiate the entrance to the house.

Golden Barrel cactus (Echinocactus grussonii)

 

The Fern Garden

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Deep in the fern garden, you'll stumble into a swimming pool with colossal clamshells basking in the sun around the pool's perimeter.

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.

Baby tears mortar the stone path.

Begonia

Begonia.

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The peltate (shield-shaped) leaves of the Begonia ‘Lotusland’ chill in the shade above a groundcover of baby tears.

The Parterre and Butterfly Garden

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Red Canna lily

On the left, red canna lilies are in bloom.

This ID has us stumped! Help please!

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)

Lion’s tail (Leonotis leonurus).

Salvia

Salvia.

Dove house

The dove house.

French lavender

French lavender.

Parterre

Entering the Parterre’s formal rose garden…

Rose garden

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The Cactus Garden

Opuntia

Opuntia grows in a garden featuring 300+ species of cacti.

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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.

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Cleistocactus.

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Dig the chilly tone of this Armatocereus from Peru.

Espostoa species cactus.

Espostoa species cactus.

Espostoa huanucoensis

Espostoa huanucoensis from Ecuador and Peru.

Cephalocereus senilis

Old man cactus (Cephalocereus senilis).

Cephalocereus senilis

Cephalocereus senilis.

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Cleistocactus

The Theatre

"Grotesques" in the Theatre Garden

Antique stone “grotesques” (which are actually quite cute) enchant the Theatre Garden.

The Succulent Garden

Panda plant (Kalanchoe tomentosa)

Panda plant (Kalanchoe tomentosa).

Folotsia grandiflora

Remember this Folotsia grandiflora from our spooky plants roundup?

The Blue Garden

Cedrus atlantica cv. Glauca Pendula in 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.

Bunya-Bunya Pine (Araucaria bidwillii)

Toward the rear of the garden is a bunya-bunya pine (Araucaria bidwillii), a conifer from Australia.

Bunya-Bunya Pine (Araucaria bidwillii)

The cones of the bunya-bunya pine (Araucaria bidwillii).

The Cycad Garden

Encephalartos species.

Encephalartos species of cycad.

Encephalartos species.

Encephalartos species.

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Encephalartos woodii

One of the rarest plants in the world, Encephalartos woodii is a cycad that’s gone extinct in the wild.

Encephalartos woodii

Cycad

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At the gift shop we picked up some succulents, including a monstrose totem pole cactus.

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Burro’s tail succulent.

Gift shop

For an aerial view of the garden, check out the video below, produced by Lotusland itself:

Flying Through Lotusland from Lotusland on Vimeo.

  • What a wonderful tour. The scale of this place is astonishing! I think your mystery plant may be a species of Echium – maybe Echium candicans either before or after its full flowering?

    • Catherine, you saved the day! They do look like E. candicans — we were lost without the showy purple cones. Thank you!