Here’s an old beekeeper’s joke: Q: If you had a million dollars, what would you do? A: Keep bees until the money ran out. With her millions, Madame Ganna Walska kept Lotusland and the money hasn’t run out yet. Born Hanna Puacz in 1887, she took the stage name of Madame Ganna Walska at the beginning of her musical studies—Ganna is Russian for Hanna and Walska reminiscent of her favorite music, the waltz. Her exotic beauty attracted wealthy men of great fortune and she married six times. Thanks to death and pre-nuptial agreements, she accumulated a fortune by the time she was thirty.
In the 1940s, her sixth and final husband, a yoga teacher, brought her to Southern California and encouraged her to purchase a Montecito estate as a retreat for Tibetan monks. The marriage failed, the monks didn’t come, and Mme. Walska transferred her energy to building Lotusland. Sparing no cost, and despite her disinterest in learning botanical names, she gathered thousands of species of tropical plants, rare cycads, cacti, and euphorbia and supervised the creation of Lotusland, functioning as its “head gardener.” She lived on the grounds, overseeing the daily activities of her extravagant garden, until her death in 1984 at 97.
Lotusland, located in the Santa Ynez foothills just southeast of Santa Barbara, consists of 17 gardens on 37 acres and is surrounded by extravagant residential estates. In 1987, the Ganna Walska Lotusland Foundation spent $500,000 and navigated 62 hearings to obtain the permits necessary to allow visitors to tour Lotusland. Montecito residents were vehemently opposed, fearing the invasion of strangers to their elite environment, and the gates were not opened to the public until 1993. Montecito’s conditional use permit allows only 15,000 visitors a year who each pay a $45 admission fee—a steep price for a garden tour. Madam Walska’s rule may be over, but the mandated restrictions uphold her reign and reflect the character of the neighborhood: no admission without a reservation, no children, no babies, no pets, no music, no wandering about on your own, no stopping in the surrounding neighborhood, no picnics, no surprise weddings or spontaneous dancing, and absolutely no gathering seeds or cuttings.
In 1958, Mme. Walska added an aloe garden, bordered with black bamboo. She converted the estate’s kidney-shaped swimming pool into a pale-blue pond, edged it with giant abalone shells so that it would glow in the moonlight, and surrounded it with over 200 species of aloe.
In 1945, Mme. Walska engaged horticulturist Ralph Stevens to install the blue garden—planted with blue atlas cedars, blue Mexican palm trees, blue-foliaged ground covers, and blue succulents.
In 1999, years after Mme. Walska’s death, Sigs Dunlap, a long-time friend, relocated his collection of over 1,000 cacti to Lotusland, forming the core of its 300-species collection. In 2004, the cactus garden, designed by Eric Nagelman, opened to the public.
Mme. Walska didn’t care much for colorful flowers and excluded them from her gardens but during one of her absences, her staff under-planted begonias in the fern garden and along the pathways. She was furious but the guilty gardeners convinced her that she would grow to love them, which she did.
Stag horn fern and “Lotusland” begonia
Although there is a minimum of traditional blooms at Lotusland, every season brings flashes of color: Winter flowering of camellia and aloe, Spring masses of orange Clivia and pink begonia, and Summer/Fall shows of vibrant cactus, bromeliad, and namesake lotus blooms.
Set in the lawn of the theater garden are rock benches for one hundred audience members and Mme. Walska’s collection of French antique stone figures, called Grotesques.”