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Once a private estate, this piece of historic Santa Barbara is a one-stop botanical tour of the world--now open for viewing

FEW OTHER GARDENS ON EARTH CAN MATCH the artful eccentricity of Lotusland, a 37-acre estate garden in Montecito, near Santa Barbara. Here, extraordinary plants from around the world are displayed with unconventional grandeur among such novel garden ornaments as large hunks of uncut amethyst. It's a garden that could happen only in Southern California: heavenly climate made it possible for the late Madame Ganna Walska, an eccentric Polish opera diva with seemingly unlimited resources and an unleashed passion for plants, to create this horticultural treasure.

When Walska settled into her estate in 1941, she veered to horticulture from a colorful past as an international socialite with a persistent though lackluster opera career. She spent the last four decades of her life amassing plants and orchestrating her garden creations with the help of several talented landscape architects.

After Walska died in 1984 at the age of 97, Lotusland was entrusted to the nonprofit foundation that manages it today. It opens to the public this month for its first full season of tours.


Tours start at a new visitor center fashioned after the estate's 1920s Spanish colonial revival bathhouse, designed by George Washington Smith. The newly planted Australian garden that surrounds the center contrasts dramatically with the long-established plantings beyond the entrance.

Manicured paths weave through 13 distinctive gardens. Two of the more fanciful are the theater garden, a tiered performance area where a troupe of 17th-century stone figures resides on the lawn against a backdrop of fern pines, and the nearby topiary garden, where large evergreen animals graze around a giant in-ground clock.

The luminescent blue garden is home to some of the oldest trees on the grounds. Magnificent Chilean wine palms tower alongside blue Atlas cedars. The palms were planted 100 years ago by R. Kinton Stevens, a pioneer nurseryman and the estate's first owner. Walska added a dense ground cover of ornamental blue fescue and the blue-gray succulent Senecio mandraliscae. Like rough-cut chunks off an iceberg, large pieces of blue-green glass from a bottling company edge the path and mirror the plantings.

Other gardens are strictly Madame Walska, with crafty disregard for conventional taste. In the aloe garden, for example, Walska grouped more than 100 kinds of aloes, both tree and ground-hugging types, with spiny, fleshy sword-shaped leaves and flower spikes of vermilion, coral, and yellow. At the heart of this alluring, almost eerie garden lies a shallow concrete pond filled with milky blue water. Two giant clamshell fountains spill water into the pond, and lustrous abalone shells fringe its edges.

Lotusland's pink stucco villa, first designed in 1919, serves as a colorful foil to one of the most bizarre yet regal plantings. An army of spiny golden barrel cactus marches down the drive and through the courtyard to the villa's entranceway, where it is halted by towering Euphorbia ingens plants. Their long, undulating arms reach rooftop height only to twist and plunge earthward, finally snaking along the ground. The villa is now the foundation office, not open for touring.

Horticulturists consider Walska's cycad garden, developed in the late 1970s, the creme de la creme of the landscape. More than 370 specimens rise from grassy hummocks. With their stiff, green featherlike fronds topping coarse, stout trunks, they look at first glance like chubby palms, but these are primitive cone-bearing plants more closely related to conifers. This collection is one of the finest in the world and home to the rarest of cycads, including Encephalartos woodii, which is now extinct in the wild.

And the garden's namesake lotuses? They were introduced to California by Kinton Stevens in 1893. At one time, Walska had an acre or so in bloom, with their huge round leaves waving on slender stalks above the water. Today, they grow in fewer numbers in the Japanese garden pond and in the lavish water garden near the bathhouse. Also growing in the water garden are water lilies, including the giant Amazon water lily, which has leaves 5 feet across; reeds; and an island of papyrus.


Garden tours are by reservation only. A restricted number of visitors are allowed to visit Lotusland each year, so plan well ahead and be patient--a visit is worth the wait.

The garden is open from February 15 through November 15. Tours, at 10 and 1:30 Wednesdays through Saturdays, last 1 1/2 to 2 hours and are led by trained docents. Saturdays are booked through midsummer, although an occasional cancellation may open up a space.

Admission ranges from $6 (with three or more people per car) to $10 (with one person per car). Children under 12 are not allowed. To reserve a tour, call (805) 969-9990 weekdays between 9 and noon, or write to Tour Reservations, Ganna Walska Lotusland, 695 Ashley Rd., Santa Barbara 93108. Once you reserve a space, the foundation will send directions.
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Title Annotation:Ganna Walska Lotusland, Santa Barbara, California
Author:Ocone, Lynn
Date:Feb 1, 1994
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