A Hidden Botanic Gem in Montecito
by: Hudson Lindenberger
As you drive up the winding roads of Montecito, passing gated estates and beautiful homes nestled among majestic California oaks, you wonder whether Lotusland can possibly outshine the surrounding neighborhood. The red adobe walls surrounding Lotusland are unadorned and simple with rows of large trees blocking your view to the interior. The entrance is unassuming, leading you to wonder about the botanic gem hidden inside.
Lotusland is the result of the vision of a remarkable woman, Madame Ganna Walska, who for 43 years poured her heart and soul into creating these extraordinary gardens. Born in 1887, Madame Walska was a world traveler, socialite, and renowned opera singer who, during her lifetime, would take six husbands. Her last husband, Theos Bernard, a well-known expert on Tibetan Buddhism, convinced her to purchase a 37-acre estate in Montecito to open what he envisioned as a retreat for Tibetan monks. When they divorced several years later, with the retreat still an unrealized dream, she decided to name the estate Lotusland and to devote her energies to creating her own personal Shangri La. Upon her death in 1984 she gave the estate, composed of 18 distinct gardens along with the estate house and large main lawn, to the Ganna Walska Lotusland Foundation to preserve her creations for all to see.
As you set out from the visitor center, you are ushered onto what was once the main driveway and today is a lush tree-lined artery that leads you past several of the properties signature gardens. The first garden you encounter is the Tropical Garden; a shady oasis surrounded by towering oaks and eucalyptus trees with orchid cacti hanging from them. The effect is serene. Continuing down the pathway you enter into one of the more famous of the gardens on the estate the Cycad Garden. Cycads are one of the oldest known species of plants on the planet and have been dated to the Permian era 280 million years ago. The collection here is one of the largest in America and has more than 900 different specimens, several of them endangered. The highlight of this garden is a collection of three large cycads, Encephalartos woodii, that are extinct in the wild. Positioned on a bluff overlooking an exquisite koi pond, you feel as though you are looking upon the relic of a time long past.
As you leave the Cycad Garden and re-enter the driveway the transformation is striking, like entering the African savannah with the Santa Ynez Mountains in the background. The lush ground cover opens up, and numerous cacti come into view. Madame Walska was famous for her ability to design gardens that seamlessly move from one region to the next, and you can see the result of her skill here. The area around the estate house is one of the first areas she designed, encompassing the Cacti and Euphorbia Garden. She lined one side of the drive with cacti and the other side with euphorbias to highlight the difference between the old world, representing her birthplace, and the new world, representing her new home. The effect is stunning and showcases her signature style of mass plantings of several hundred plants.
As you leave the main house behind, you are drawn to the tiered Parterre that consists of a series of flowerbeds, brick walkways and fountains – all surrounded by large hedges. As you walk down the Parterre you find yourself being channeled into the imaginative Topiary Garden that has as its centerpiece a 25-foot wide working clock surrounded by a collection of large whimsical topiaries. The estate orchards, containing more than one hundred fruit trees, border one side of the garden and the other side is the entrance to the expansive Main Lawn.
The cacti dominate one side of the Main Lawn while the other side is an orderly fringe of palm trees and towering foliage. At the end of the lawn you enter the Theater Garden, a functioning theater, which was designed by Madame Walska to seat 100 people. The garden is home to a collection of antique stone figures from her home in France, retrieved after World War II. The feeling of the garden is a bit like Alice in Wonderland, making you feel that you have stumbled upon a hidden world. The path from the Theater Garden leads you through the still Shade Palm Garden, picturesque Lower Bromeliad Garden, and the bright Succulent Garden.
The Blue Garden is the next and has been called the heart of Lotusland, a peaceful escape after the explosion of color from the Hydrangeas in the Succulent Garden next door. The garden was designed in 1948 and includes only plants that have blue-grey to silvery foliage. The Chilean wine palms with their 10 wide trunks loom over the blue fescue and Mexican blue palms. The effect is quite hypnotic and you feel yourself instantly calmed.
Leaving the Blue Garden you cross over the drive and enter the Aloe Garden, home to more than 170 different kinds of aloe. The pathways lead you through a stunning landscape of flowering aloe plants, large palm trees and one very unique pool. The pool is a bright white shallow kidney-shaped centerpiece that is surrounded by large shells and filled by two large fountains created from giant clamshells.
A short walk up the path brings you to the Water Garden, a unique section that was once the estate’s swimming pool and today is a large water garden. The setting is tranquil as you gaze over the Asian lotus in the pool, the sides fringed with numerous plantings, and the old bathhouse, now surrounded by a riot of foliage bringing to mind an old abandoned Roman home. When you reach the end of the garden you enter a long brick walkway lined with towering cypress trees and from there you find a set of water stairs leading you towards another of the estates highlights, the Japanese Garden.
Quite possibly the most peaceful spot on the property is the Japanese Garden, a large koi pond surrounded by towering Japanese cypress, evergreens and redwood trees. A pathway leads you around the pond by numerous stone lanterns, a small Shinto shrine, and several inviting and shady benches where you can contemplate the tranquility of the place. From the Japanese Garden it is a short walk back to the visitor center.
Lotusland is the result of the vision of one extraordinary woman and is maintained today by the nonprofit that is dedicated to preserving her legacy. To visit, you must make reservations. Walk-in visitors are not permitted, as they try to make a minimal impact on the surrounding neighborhoods. Guided tours are available ($35) and are well worth the cost, which supports the foundation. www.lotusland.org
Featured Image at top: Carved Stone figurines in the Theater Garden. Photo by Hudson Lindenberger.