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The Water Garden is one of 18 unique gardens that represent various climate zones at the 37-acre Ganna Walska Lotusland in Montecito. Walska, an opera singer, bought the property in 1941. Photo by Jerry Ondash
Columns Hit the Road

Hit the Road: Montecito’s Lotusland is diva’s ‘theatrical staging of gardens’

We are in Harry and Meghan’s neighborhood. I just know it.

It’s Montecito, mansions, mature landscaping, high walls, precise hedges, snaking driveways and gates. Big gates. Ornate gates. Electric gates. Gates with guard houses.

My husband is not convinced that royalty resides here.

“I think they’d be sequestered somewhere in the hills,” he opines.

“Just look for a chicken coop,” I say.

Driving down Sycamore Canyon Road makes it clear why those who can afford to live here do, and it’s unlikely that we’ll ever pass through the gates of any of these sumptuous fortresses, and yet … There is one grand estate in this neighborhood that is open to all regardless of station or bloodline: Ganna Walska Lotusland

This lush, 37-acre botanical garden, which carries the name of the Polish opera star who once owned, designed and built it, is a collection of distinctive gardens, each one more splendid than the next. Included are an expansive Japanese garden; water garden; a “blue” garden (only plants with silvery to blue-grey foliage); gardens that highlight cypress with low-handing moss; and gardens highlighting ferns, palms, Australian flora, bromeliads, roses and tropical plants.

Madame Ganna Walska was born Hanna Puacz in Poland in 1887. As an opera singer, she toured America and Europe, was married six times and “continued to study both vocal music and spiritual teachings. …” She mingled in the circles of the rich and famous, and in 1941, purchased the 37-acre Cuesta Linda estate in Santa Barbara.

Walska’s original goal was to create a retreat for Tibetan monks (Tibetland), but when the monks never materialized, she renamed the estate Lotusland to honor the sacred Indian lotus growing in one of the ponds. With the help of landscape architects, Walska began designing and building the gardens. 

Walska was so dedicated to her mission that she auctioned off some of her jewelry to pay for the final garden — one for rare cycads.

“We have the only existing male Encephalartos woodii (cycad) in the world,” explains Alessandra Villegas, communications director.  “Many of the other cycads are endangered, too.”

Walking the maze of shrouded pathways that crisscross the grounds (words of advice: use the map!), it occurs to me that what may have earned Lotusland’s spot on someone’s 10 Best Gardens in the World list is the size of the trees and plants. Everything’s big.

“I feel as though I’m walking through the Land of the Giants,” I remark, gazing upward at palm trees that exceed 100 feet and 100 years old. I note that many of these succulents grow in our yard, but Lotusland’s versions look like flora on steroids. 

For Thomas Baker, Lotusland is not just another beautiful garden; it’s his office.

He began working here four years ago.

“I lived in Santa Fe and Tucson and that’s where I was introduced to the desert,” says the 35-year-old horticulturist, one of 13 at the garden. “My interest is cactus and desert plants and no one else really wants them.” 

That’s because maintaining these plants can be a thorny and tedious business. On this day, Baker is nimbly cleaning out the beds of the spikey parodia, a South American cactus, removing leaves that have fallen from overhanging California coast live oaks.

Baker loves working at Lotusland because of the variety of species and “obviously, it’s a beautiful garden. There’s always something new to work on. It’s a dynamic place to work.”

Baker’s favorite is the Dunlap Cactus Garden, which features more than 500 cactuses (300 kinds), donated by Merritt Dunlap of Fallbrook. Dunlap grew many from seed, starting in 1929.

“People should visit if they want to see a whole world of plant life in one, concentrated location,” Baker offers. “We talk about the drama of the place; (that’s because) there’s a theatrical staging of gardens here.”

Lotusland requires reservations; tours are self-guided until pandemic rules are lifted. For more discussion and photos, visit www.facebook.com/elouise.ondash.

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