In the Garden: California: A Fantastic Garden, plus Unbelievable Trees in “Ganna Walska Lotusland”


By Charles Kidder

Golden Barrel Cactus and other succulents in front of the house at Lotusland. (Photo courtesy Ganna Walska Lotusland)
Golden Barrel Cactus and other succulents in front of the house at Lotusland. (Photo courtesy Ganna Walska Lotusland)

You might think I’m practicing my Polish, trying to tell you that I’m waltzing my way to some place called Lotusland. Well, you would indeed have the Polish and waltzing connection correct. But in actuality, I’ve just put forth the name of a fabulous garden near Santa Barbara, California, so the name “Lotusland” now becomes more meaningful. But what about Ganna Walska?

Hanna Puazc was born to a middle-class family in Poland around 1887. It’s not easy to handily summarize the next ninety-seven years of her life. Early on she changed her name to Ganna Walska, the latter signifying the waltz. Her professions, not necessarily in any particular order, could be listed as artist, singer, mystic, gardener and serial monogamist. It is said that she “married often and well,” and her life in Europe, New York and California attests to that. In 1941 she and her last husband purchased an estate in Montecito and renamed it “Tibetland.” They intended to be a refuge for Tibetan monks, but when that idea did not come to fruition, the name was changed to “Lotusland” after Walska’s favorite flower.

Madame Walska, as she is frequently referred to, had purchased a quite lovely 37-acre property and garden but set about re-making it her own vision. A swimming pool was converted into a water feature to contain the signature lotuses.  She had a love for desert plants and employed them to wonderful excess. If one cactus made a statement, she believed that dozens would bowl you over. A mass of Golden Barrel Cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) flank the front door to her house; they are endangered in the wild in Mexico, but fortunately easy to propagate.

Succulents are such a part of the Lotusland look that it’s tempting to say, if you don’t like them, then stay away. But that would be a mistake for a couple of reasons. First, there are several other totally different gardens on the estate: a Japanese garden, ferns, topiary, an orchard, a blue garden—albeit with many agaves—and a water garden. But I think that even cactus haters arriving with an open mind would come to appreciate the sculptural quality and sheer weirdness (to Easterners) of these amazing plants.

Although Walska died in 1984, a major portion of her garden’s cacti did not arrive at Lotusland until 2001. Her friend Merritt S. Dunlap had promised her his collection in 1966, and upon his passing, over 300 different species were trucked up from the San Diego area over the course of a couple of years. One can only imagine the effort that went into such a task, especially with the need to protect both the plants and the laborers moving them.

At Lotusland you can walk down a path between a “forest” of cacti on one side and succulent euphorbias on the other. The two plant groups are unrelated, the first being from the New World, the second from the Old. Growing in similarly dry conditions, however, they have both adapted and assumed similar forms. But give them a closer look, and you will see subtle differences in stem and flower structure.

One can not talk about Lotusland and not mention the Cycad Garden. These primitive plants, bearing a superficial resemblance to palms and ferns, were also a favorite of Walska’s, so much so that she auctioned her jewelry collection to the tune of almost a million dollars to finance the purchase of the cycads.  The collection of 900 specimens encompasses half of the world’s species, one of which is extinct in the wild.

Visiting Lotusland in May, one could not help be aware of California’s ongoing drought. They are very mindful of the problem and managing their water carefully.  Fortunately, Lotusland has its own well and has been practicing sustainable and water-wise gardening for years.

Visiting Lotusland should be on any gardener’s bucket list, but it requires some planning. The garden is in a very exclusive area known as Montecito—think hedges and walls hiding grand mansions owned by the likes of Oprah Winfrey—and there are restrictions on the number of visitors. Visitation is only by guided tour; there are two per day, Wednesday through Saturday, mid-February through mid-November.  Admission for adults is $45, certainly pricey compared to most gardens. But it’s worth every penny. Upkeep is far better than most public gardens, our tour guide was knowledgeable and friendly, and Lotusland does not have the freedom to admit more people to increase revenue.

If it fits into your schedule, one other must-see in California is the Giant Sequoia trees (Sequoiadendron giganteum).  They are cousins to the Coast Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), which are taller but not as massive. Sequoias can exceed three hundred feet in height, have a diameter over twenty-five feet, and can live over three thousand years. I took many pictures of these trees, but none could capture their scale. Plus, if you walk up to one, you can have the pleasure of patting its fibrous, hollow-sounding bark, sometimes up to eighteen inches thick. Giant Sequoias are found in a few dozen scattered groves in the southern Sierra Nevada.  Some of the best places to see them are national parks: Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite. But please note: in Yosemite, most of the much-visited Mariposa Grove will be closed to visitors for the next two years.


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