Tuesday, 6 January 2015

"Wow" gardens of the world I - Lotusland near Santa Barbara, California

Densely planted cactus plants surround the Spanish-style house (designed by Reginald Johnson) at Lotusland
In the first in a series of gardens that have really impressed me during the years I've been writing this blog, Lotusland in California ranks as one of the most memorable. Visitor numbers to this extraordinary 37-acre estate in Montecito - an exclusive residential district near Santa Barbara and a couple of hours drive north from Los Angeles - are strictly limited and you need to book well ahead to gain access. I was lucky enough to visit last summer. Sadly, the day did not look promising, with a heavy mist rolling in from the Pacific and a distinct chill in the air, but never be deceived by this coastal area of California because within an hour of arriving, the sun had burned off the low-lying cloud and I was able to enjoy this extraordinary garden in bright sunshine.
The citrus arbor at Lotusland
If you visit Lotusland, you’ll realise this is no ordinary garden, and understand that its eccentric and determined owner had extraordinary vision when planning and planting her home plot. Created by a flamboyant Polish opera singer - Madame Ganna Walska - who went through husbands quicker than most of us can reasonably create a landscape, the legacy she left behind is one of the most extraordinary private gardens in America and also houses two of the greatest cycad and cactus collections anywhere in the world.
The cactus garden at Lotusland, donated by Merritt Sigsbee Dunlap in 1999
Gardens, like interiors, reflect the personality of their creators, so it will come as no surprise that Lotusland is both flamboyant and exotic, as was the woman who came in search of a new life in California and eventually settled here while Europe was at war, championed by her final husband. Walska was a legendary socialite, who married six times. She came to the United States via Paris from Russia, leaving a succession of husbands behind her and was in her 50s when she arrived here. But this was to be her last union because gardening became her new love.
Lotus in full bloom in the Water Garden, formerly the swimming pool, at Ganna Walska's estate
Lotusland had originally been the Cuesta Linda estate, and a fully-functioning nursery, operated by the pioneering nurseryman R. Kenton Stevens, who planted many of the well established palms, exotic trees and subtropical plants here. His son, Ralph Stevens, returned to work with Ganna Walska when she was developing the garden many years later. She bought the estate in 1941 on the advice of her sixth husband, Theos Bernard. They had ambitious plans to use the property as a retreat for Tibetan monks and renamed it Tibetland.
The water stairs at Lotusland have been completely restored in recent years
But neither monks nor monastic robes materialised and having dispatched Mr Bernard, Ganna Walska turned her artistic talent and considerable wealth towards creating the magnificent garden which survives today, with the help of well-known landscape architects and designers of the day. Lotusland became her spiritual retreat and although the garden rarely opened to the public during her lifetime, she left the means to maintain the estate and today it operates as the Ganna Walska Lotusland Foundation. 
The Aloe Garden at Lotusland contains hundreds of different species
Within the 37-acre estate, there are a series of garden rooms and some 3,000 plant species, including one of the most important cycad collections in the world. Cycads are one of the oldest plants on earth - a cross between a palm and a conifer, with magnificent, giant cones - and can be traced back to the age of the dinosaur. Most species are endangered and some are extinct in the wild. But Ganna Walska became passionate about them. 

Huge cycad cones at Lotusland
The cycad collection here is famous - not just because it houses 900 specimens and two thirds of all known existing species, but also because of the way Madame Walska acquired the means to make it possible. She sold her collection of jewels - for in excess of £1 million - to raise the funds to start her new garden. It was the last section of garden created by her and houses three Encephalartos woodii, which are no longer found in the wild. 
     The only other cycad of this type in the Americas is housed at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania. In Europe, there are also surviving specimens at Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam, Glasnevin in Scotland and Kew Gardens in London, where the plant produced a male cone for the first time in September 2004, more than a century after it had arrived there, much to the excitement of both staff and visitors to the Temperate House, where it lives.
     The cactus garden is also a collector's paradise. Donated to the Foundation in 1999 by Merritt Sigsbee Dunlap, a friend of Madame Walska. He had been acquiring specimens for 70 years and grew many of the plants seen here from seed. There are more than 300 different species of cacti in the garden, grouped by country of origin. Dunlap was a close friend of Madame Walska and although she did not live to see his wonderful gift, he celebrated his 97th birthday in the garden in 2003, before it opened to the public the following year. 
The horticultural clock (top) and topiary in the garden

Other gardens within the estate include a well-established five-acre Japanese garden, famous for its flowering cherry trees in springtime and maple colours in the autumn; a large collection of bromeliads; a theatre garden; the much-applauded Blue Garden (see below) and a topiary garden with 26 immaculately-clipped topiary animals surrounding a working horticultural clock (right). There is also an established orchard, a butterfly garden that is relatively newly planted and an aloe garden housing hundreds of different species. There are also hundreds of abalone shells to be ogled around the sculpted pool in this part of the garden.
     But what sets Lotusland aside from so many gardens, quite apart from its huge range of plants and trees, is the way in which it is so abundantly planted, be it aloes, cycads or bromeliads. Madame Walska never did things by half and when she finally chose a plant she liked, she set out to acquire hundreds for her collection. The overall effect within the garden is startling.
      The Blue Garden (below) is another is another well-loved part of Lotusland - created by Madame as long ago as 1948 with Ralph Stevens, the son of the original owner, working alongside her. It features Mexican blue palms (Brahea armata) and Blut Atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca'), plus Chilean wine palms (Jubaea chilensis), with many Australian conifers at the rear. The pathways, lined with blue-green glass, add to the shimmering blue effect.

You can only visit Lotusland on a docent-led guided tour and booking details are available on the website, but do book well ahead if your heart is set on seeing this garden. You certainly won't be disappointed! But you may well find that you are overwhelmed by the huge amount there is to see in the limited time available. The docents are incredibly knowledgeable and can answer all your questions about both the history of the property and the amazing range of plants you can expect to see there, but you will only get a couple of hours to see everything.
Shells are a major feature in the Aloe garden at Lotusland
The restricted opening hours and constraints on visitor numbers to this extraordinary garden are the legacy of a long-standing dispute with neighbours, since Montecito is a very exclusive residential area and the local community did not want visitors disturbing their peace. Opening hours are Tuesday to Friday only, from February to November, with two guided tours available at 10.30 and 13.30 - all tours are docent led and numbers are strictly limited to 10 visitors per session, to ensure that adjoining properties are not disturbed by tour buses, relentless traffic or parking problems en route to this wonderful garden. Cost is $45 per adult.


  1. I wasn't aware of the constraints until now Charlotte. Such a legendary garden, renowned for being simply spectacular. Would definitely love to see it in the flesh someday soon.

  2. Very impressive--so much to see there! I especially enjoyed the view and structure of the citrus arbor--it looks like paradise to me. Also, the lotuses--wow!

  3. Charlotte, I have found that membership has distinct advantages when visiting Lotusland. Members are able to arrive earlier and can wander the gardens at will without docent led tours. I am glad to have toured with the docents once , but it was really difficult to linger for photo taking . For that reason, I always purchase membership in years I think I might visit.

    1. Membership sounds like a wonderful idea and if I lived closer, I'd certainly take your advice.