Madame’s Magnum Opus
Socialite. Opera singer. Collector. The ever capricious Madame Ganna Walska poured herself into everything she did, including the whimsical botanic garden at Lotusland—her 37-acre fantasy of botany and Buddhism. Here, curator VIRGINIA HAYES takes us on a stroll through the fertile gardens of the Madame’s imagination.
For some people, collecting gets into the blood and an innocent hobby becomes an obsession. Madame Ganna Walska, who bought a Spanish-style estate in Santa Barbara in 1941, collected a number of different items, including husbands—six of them, from a Russian count to a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism. She also accumulated an impressive array of jewels, several properties, and countless designer outfits, including dozens of Erté ball gowns and costumes and hats from the famous Mr. John. She had enough French furniture to furnish several houses, a priceless collection of Tibetan religious art and artifacts, and many other fine antiques and paintings.
Her life before she moved to California consisted of alternately enjoying country living at her chateau outside Paris and seeing and being seen during the busy opera season from her Park Avenue apartment in New York City. She spent hours of her time working to perfect her voice and mounting her own operatic productions. She supported a number of innovative theater and dance productions, both in Paris and later in Chicago. In short, her life was one of art, luxury, and largesse. No wonder collecting came so easily to her.
California must have worked its magic on Madame Walska, though, and she started to see the landscaping possibilities on her 37-acre property. She began acquiring a new collection—this time of exotic plants. Starting with cacti, she was soon filling the grounds with specimens of every sort. Aloes, other fantastically shaped succulents, palms, cycads, bromeliads, a circus of topiary creatures, and a bevy of aquatic plants, including the mystical lotus, were massed in dramatic displays on the estate she called Lotusland. But Madame Walska didn’t stop with plants; she also accumulated antique carousel animals that made an appearance at her garden parties, Japanese lanterns to grace the Japanese-style garden, 17th century stone statues of dwarves and humpbacks to populate the theatre garden, and giant clam shells to spill water into the shell pool and decorate the white sand beach she installed next to her swimming pool. Victorian-era blown glass gazing balls made a comeback in her garden and boulders studded with amethyst crystals, basketball-sized chunks of green mariposite, blue sodalite, pink quartz, and even an iron-rich rock that has taken on the magnetic force of the earth’s core were strewn over the landscape. Other bits of minerals and colored glass in shades of green, blue, and black formed borders to the delightfully meandering paths in many parts of the garden, catching the light and adding to the overall drama.
A few of her collections are no longer at Lotusland, but the plants have grown and matured, creating an even more dramatic landscape. The amethyst boulders and green glass borders continue to complement the planting beds, and the shell pool challenges the senses. The grotesques in the theatre silently applaud the occasional performance, and the renovated topiary animals are rearing and leaping around the 25-foot diameter working clock whose face is planted with a variety of colorful succulents. The cycad garden has expanded to become world-class, and a new cactus garden (a gift from a friend of Madame Walska’s) continues the tradition of exotic plants displayed in unusual and fantastic settings.
Sometime in the midst of her collecting and displaying these magnificent specimens, Madame Walska decided that her creation was worthy of preservation and that a wider audience could benefit from experiencing it. She created a nonprofit, educational foundation to continue her work when she was gone. After her death in 1984, the foundation became active. Today, Lotusland is open to the public for guided tours, which give visitors a glimpse into the mind of the incomparable Madame.
Lotusland – Guided tours by reservation only; Wednesday through Saturday, mid-February through mid-November. For more information, visit www.LotusLand.org, or call 805.969.9990 to make a reservation.
Where to Stay
Spanish Garden Inn is Santa Barbara’s finest luxury boutique hotel. Rated #1 on www.TripAdvisor.com, it boasts a striking Spanish-Mediterranean design. This downtown hotel is walking distance to SB’s premier restaurants, shops, museums, and theaters. 805.564.4700, www.SpanishGardenInn.com.
The Inn at East Beach is the best beachside value on the American Riviera. Located just steps from the sand, this mid-century gem has earned a reputation for fine personal service. Rooms and suites overlook the central pool and offer views from mountains to sea. From $89, 805.965.0546, www.InnAtEastBeach.com.