Lotusland: Santa Barbara’s Secret Garden

Lotusland! sounds like an amusement park, right? Well, it’s actually one of the top 10 gardens in the world. Located in the exclusive Santa Barbara, CA neighborhood of Montecito, the story of its founding is as exotic as the plants it is home to.

The gardens were the creation of Ganna Walska (1887-1984), a Polish opera singer and socialite whose six marriages, mostly to wealthy men (including a Russian baron), resulted in her having the financial resources to carry out her life’s work of creating and leaving a horticulture legacy that few gardens can boast. She created the gardens on her personal estate which she lived on until her death in 1984. Her estate was left to create a nonprofit foundation and the gardens opened to the public in 1993. The gardens include an aloe garden, Japanese garden, bromeliad garden, blue garden, cactus garden, fern garden, topiary garden, shade palm garden and a tropical garden, to name only some of them! Of utmost importance is the cycad collection of cone bearing plants that date back to the time of the dinosaurs! Lotusland has the most complete collection of cycads in the US.

The cycad garden is referred to as the “million dollar garden” since its development was funded by Ganna’s sale of her jewelry collection.

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Cycad
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Cycad

The collections at Lotusland are important from a conservation and horticultural perspective for sure, but they are also fun. Maybe it was due to her artistic background as a performer, but there is an atmosphere of whimsy, playfulness and entertainment at Lotusland. These statues in the theater garden, or “grotesques”, that Ganna got from France after WWII, and the animals in the topiary garden showcase her playful spirit. The theater has seating for 100 people on stone benches.

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“grotesques”
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“grotesques”
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Topiary garden
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Topiary garden
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Japanese Garden
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Japanese Garden
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Japanese Garden
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Japanese Garden
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Japanese Garden
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Japanese Garden

The cactus garden includes rare specimens from the Galapagos Islands.

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Cactus garden
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Cactus garden
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Cactus garden
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Cactus garden
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Cactus garden
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Cactus garden
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From Galapagos Islands
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Cactus garden

The parterre, or formal ornamental garden, includes stone mosaic paths, designed by Ganna herself, and some very unusual planters like the one below made out of amethyst.

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Parterre
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Parterre
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Amethyst planter
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Parterre
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Parterre

Near the parterre is a beautiful rose garden.

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Rose garden
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Rose garden
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Rose garden

The orchards include lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit, guava and kumquat.

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Orchards

The Water Garden is home to the garden’s namesake lotus plants that bloom in the summer. We visited in the spring so did not see them in bloom but I can just imagine these pools full of beautiful pink lotus blooms.

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Water garden
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Water garden

The Aloe Garden has a very unique feature, a pool dating from the early 20th century that Ganna converted into an abalone shell pond with clam shell fountains.

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Abalone pond
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Abalone pond
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Abalone pond

Not much attention is paid to Ganna’s house on the property which is now administrative offices. Obviously the tour is focused on the gardens and when I asked about the house, our guide says that Ganna herself did not spend much money or time on it and that by Montecito standards it is not really very grand. Ah, I will let you judge that for yourself, but I didn’t think it was too shabby!

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House
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House
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House
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House

Tours of Lotusland are limited because it is located in a private residential neighborhood. Tickets must be purchased in advance over the phone,  you cannot purchase them online. The three of us had our own guide on our tour, but I also told them we had a four year old with us so they have a slightly shorter tour if you bring children under the age of ten.

Ganna did not have any children but it is clear that Lotusland and her contribution to horticulture and biodiversity provide her a lasting legacy.

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