MONTECITO, Calif. — Ganna Walska, a wealthy Polish opera singer, created the Lotusland garden in her own likeness — beautiful, eccentric, intelligent, quixotic, romantic, spiritual — on a private estate here about 100 miles north of Los Angeles.
Her dramatic touch and preference for mass plantings can be seen throughout the botanical garden, which opened to the public in 1993. There are gardens devoted to cycads, ferns, cactuses, lotuses, topiary and many exotic plants. The botanicals are playfully interspersed with garden ornamentation, including stone figures ("grotesques"), rocks, minerals, and paths of stone and blue slag glass.
The non-profit garden, which aims to educate the public about ecosystems that must be preserved, has numerous rare species of great value to conservationists. Carol Bornstein, director of nature gardens at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, calls Lotusland "a remarkable place that is in some respects the horticultural history of California."
Walska and one of her six husbands, yogi Theos Bernard, bought the 37-acre estate in 1941, intending to make it a retreat for Tibetan monks. After their brief marriage ended, she dedicated herself to designing and developing Ganna Walska Lotusland and preserving rare plants. A self-taught garden designer, she worked with top professionals in the field.
She sold some of her jewels to finance the costly Cycad Garden, her final project before she died in 1984 at age 97.
"Over the course of four decades, Ganna Walska's operatic flair, in conjunction with some hard-headed professional designers, transformed a fine, Gilded-Age, Montecito estate into a wonder of theatrical landscape effects," says Brian Tichenor, an adjunct professor of landscape architecture at the University of Southern California.
Every year, guest curator Nancy Gifford organizes an art show at Lotusland; this year's is "Flock: Birds on the Brink," which features contemporary work by 35 local and international artists. The show, which runs through May 23, celebrates the interdependency of birds, plants and humans, and highlights the loss of wild bird populations and habitat.
The art installations blend into the gardens; for example, a 10-foot-high caged topiary peacock, titled "Peacock Tamed" by artist Joe Shelton, joins whimsical creatures and a clock with astrological signs in the Topiary Garden. "Sitting Ducks: Hiding in Plain Sight/Site" by R. T. Livingston has wooden mallard decoys camouflaged among rocks and giant clamshells by the swimming pool. Gary Smith's "Nests for Lotusland" appear as if magically in various gardens.
Lotusland can be toured from mid-February through mid-November. Reservations are required.