great gardens


a romp around Ganna Walska’s legendary private playground outside Santa Barbara

By Kate Bryant September 23, 2011

The iconic entry to Lotusland, with Euphorbia ingens Weeping Form

Lotusland… the very name conjures up romance and bohemian quirkiness; the place itself oozes charm and fresh delights at every turn.

I’ve wanted to visit Lotusland just outside Santa Barbara since I first read about it some 15 years ago. Back then, you had to make reservations a year in advance. I’ve never been able to plan a trip that far ahead so I pretty much gave up on ever visiting. But in recent years, the neighborhood rules have relaxed concerning visitors. I found out about the change in rules before my trip to LA and was able to make reservations a mere three days ahead of time.

This remarkable garden was created by Madame Ganna Walska (1887-1994).

Born in Poland, Walska became an opera singer and soon "attracted the attention of audiences, critics and gentleman admirers on both sides of the Atlantic." She married six husbands over the course of her life, wrote an autobiography ("Always Room at the Top") and studied spiritual teachings in her quest for personal and creative fulfillment. In a word, she is what my mother would affectionately call a "West Coast flake"! She moved to California and, with her sixth and last husband, bought the 37-acre estate in 1941 that would become Lotusland. Before long, the garden began its inexorable pull on her, and she devoted the remainder of her life to creating a magical horticultural wonderland. (See Slideshow, above.)

The garden consists of over 20 distinct areas, including succulent, bromeliad and palm gardens, a topiary garden (so playful and fun!), a vast and stunning cactus garden (over 300 species), a fernery, an olive allee, a Japanese garden, tropical gardens, and more. Walska was a serious plant collector and, at one point, sold personal jewelry in order to purchase plants for her cycad collection. Many, if not most, of the plants throughout Lotusland are labeled with both botanical and common name, so you’re never wondering about what you’re looking at for very long. But the overall sweep of plants and the quaint and charming design is what your eye mainly sees.

Somehow, though, in spite of the labels and the widened pathways, Lotusland still feels like a garden that belonged to someone – not just a display garden or a botanical garden, but an outdoor space that exhibits an individual spirit. It’s not typical for such a large garden – maintained by a team of professional gardeners, and after the owner’s death no less – to feel so personal, but this garden somehow does it.

There are two, two-hour tours per day; currently, these take place at 10 am and 1:30 pm. Call or email the office and make reservations ($35/person for garden admission and the complete garden tour). The address will be provided upon payment.

To make reservations, email reservations at lotusland dot org or call 805-969-9990 Mon to Fri from 9 am to 5 pm and Saturdays between 9 am and 1 pm.

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