Late last spring, my husband and I toured a botanical garden located east of Santa Barbara in the Montecito foothills. Since this 37-acre estate is unlike any other botanical landscape, we often found ourselves lagging behind the docent-led tour in an attempt to absorb the setting’s serenity and the scale of the behemoth trees from blue atlas cedars (Cedrus atlantica) to 100-year-old Chilean wine palms (Jubaea chilensis).
This private estate of Madame Ganna Walska was gifted to a nonprofit foundation upon her death in 1985, opening to the public in 1993. Intrigued, I wanted to know more about this property tucked away in an exclusive residential neighborhood – and about the woman whose marriages to wealthy men allowed her to indulge her whimsical passion for exotic plants, many of which are now extinct in their native habitat. Here’s a snippet of what I discovered about these captivating grounds worthy of a visit.
Who was Madame Ganna Walska?
Polish-born Hanna Puacz was only 9 when her mother died and an adolescent when sent by her father to St. Petersburg, Russia, to live with an aunt and uncle, a renown painter educated in Paris and Warsaw. In 1907, the teenager eloped with a Russian count, the first of six husbands who included a New York psychiatrist, an International Harvester Company heir and a yoga guru. By 1918, Hanna rejected her strict Catholic upbringing for singing lessons, changed her name to Madame Ganna Walska (Walska, because she loved the waltz), made her concert debut alongside tenor Enrico Caruso, and launched her opera career with ballerina Anna Pavlova. Upon her 1928 arrival in America for her third concert tour, she also made headlines when U.S. Customs valued her traveling wardrobe and jewelry at $2.5 million.
In 1940, Walska met Theos Bernard, a lecturer at a yoga demonstration in New York. He convinced her not only to purchase property in California for a retreat center that they named Tibetland but also to marry him. Upon the dissolution of this sixth and final marriage, Walska, a student of Eastern religions, renamed her property Lotusland for the sacred Indian flowers (Papilionaceae) blooming in her pond.
Walska was a paradoxical figure, suffering from paralyzing stage fright in the early years of her singing career, yet escaping France in 1940 aboard the last passenger ship before German occupation and holding benefit tours on the estate grounds from 1943 through 1967. She dabbled in mysticism, yet disliked machinery, all the while devoting 43 of her 97 years to collecting rare, exotic plants and even auctioned off her remaining jewels to finance the transformation of an abandoned grain field into a Cycad Garden that opened to the public in 1979. By combining her penchant for plants with the wealth accumulated through multiple marriages, Walska’s landscaped legacy is a plant lover’s dream.
Overview of the grounds
Today, Lotusland’s 37 acres operate as a public garden. Fountains and statuary adorn the grounds; an array of mature cactus (Cactaceae) compliment the 1920 Mediterranean style architecture of the main house. The Wall Street Journal stated that Walska’s idea of “mass plantings” is “now de rigeur for every landscape designer.”
Certainly, the more than 18 theme-based settings Walska designed with her unlimited resources are unrivaled. Lotusland is home to more than 3,000 different plants, including 208 different plant families and 3,286 distinct taxa, including 12 families of ferns (Phylum Pteridophyta) and 22 families of succulents other than aloe (Asphodelacae) and euphorbias (Euphorbiaceae). In 1993, her Cycad (Cycas) collection ranked second in the world with more than 200 species.
Topiary animals from Los Angeles’ Osaki Plant Zoo are planted around a horticultural clock designed by head gardener/landscape architect Ralph Stevens that features custom clock works. The newest addition of more than 500 cacti planted from seed in the 1920s by Merritt Dunlap was relocated from Fallbrook in 2001 and is grouped by country of origin along with 300 tons of basalt columns and boulders.
On Walska’s staff was Frank Fuijii, skilled in Japanese gardening, whose father helped design the Japanese Garden in Golden Gate Park in 1904. Today Lotusland’s horticultural philosophy encourages the attraction of beneficial insects and use of nontoxic pest management techniques.
Two-hour docent-guided tours are available mid-February to mid-November. Booking your reservations in advance is suggested. Further information is available at www.lotusland.org or by calling 800-969-9990 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday.
Launa Herrmann is a Master Gardener with the University of California Cooperative Extension office in Fairfield. If you have gardening questions, call the Master Gardener’s office at 784-1322.