Ganna Walska Lotusland
Santa Barbara, California
Located in sunny southern California and only accessible through private tours and a hefty admission price, Lotusland seemed like a magical place that would always be just out of reach to me, to be viewed solely through the pages of my fancy garden books. But the more I heard about this sprawling horticultural spectacle, my curiosity took over and visiting Lotusland became an obsession. Finally on a recent trip to Los Angeles I splurged and made a reservation.
The fact that Lotusland can only be experienced on a timed tour with a docent was a tad off-putting, because I really prefer to explore and photograph on my own. Our tour group happened to be big enough that I could linger behind or dash off while someone was asking a question. I must admit, though, that it was handy to hear the insights of a plant expert during our exploration of the property. Also I appreciated that our guide was intent on making sure we saw all of the best spots (and on avoiding traffic jams with other tour groups).
At first Lotusland appears to be your standard opulent private garden. A pathway lined with orderly rows of agave and aloe plants leads to a clearing with a picturesque view of the Japanese Garden, complete with a willow tree peacefully hanging over a lake. Things got more interesting as we ventured to a hill where delicate flowering trees emerged from a bumpy carpet of bright green soleirolia under the shade of tall trees above. A orderly Italian-inspired cypress allée flanks the Water Stairs, a fountain feature which also functions as a gateway into some of the more curious sections of the garden. There are countless contrasts of original, more formal design elements such as this with modern features that have been added over the years.
Much of the fame and notoriety around Lotusland is due to its quirky former owner, Ganna Walska, who, beginning in the 1940s until her death in the 80s infused her unique style and taste for exotic plants into it. The bold choice to transform a luxurious ornamental swimming pool into a murky aquatic garden filled with water lilies and lotus is perhaps her most famous design statement. The adjacent white-bottomed pool with giant clamshell fountains is a bit kitsch, but it somehow works by being alongside the Dr. Seuss-esque Aloe Garden, where twisting stalks and wild torches of red and orange flowers feature the many varieties of that plant. A subtler touch of character is in the use throughout of blue glass and hunks of amethyst crystal as garden accents, which in both color and texture really stood out alongside the plantlife.
There is a drama to the bold landscape that overflows with plants imported from all over the world. Giant century plants stand tall and impressively alongside stone pillars leading into the soft monochromatic Blue Garden. The Theater Garden creates a sunken stone-stepped amphitheater with a bold green backdrop of boxwood and pine. The Topiary Garden included some fanciful figurines, but the landscape of the Cactus and Euphorbia section was even more amusing with its army of barrel cactus in every size and huge, drooping euphorbia standing watch aroundthe original residence. The Fern, Cycad, and Cactus Gardens each become otherworldly settings where ancient and exotic species mingle in fascinating splendor. There were too many gardens to even mention half of them.
Final Rating: Lotusland lives up to the hype while still maintaining a sense of mystery, keeping you at arms length from experiencing its entirety. My main complaint is I wanted more time, more freedom, more access to explore, but that is a testament to just how interesting and spacious it was. Two hours is not nearly enough time to get to know the place. While maintaining an air of aloofness and grandeur, Lotusland has a playfulness to it that keeps it down-to-earth and relatable, not taking itself too seriously. I like a garden that exemplifies the personality of its creator and this one sits apart from some of the more haughty horticultural displays of wealthy eccentrics. FOUR BLOOM RATING