Lotusland: California Dreamin’

American writer Joan Didion once said: ‘A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.’

Didion came from, and repeatedly returned to, California, and many would say that the land of bleached skies, citrus orchards, and water shortages – which she defined so resolutely in novels and essays – instinctively belongs to her. But there’s a discrete, 37-acre tract of land tucked away in the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains, in Santa Barbara County, that Didion has no claim on. Through sheer obsession and single-mindedness, that part of California belongs to another woman – Madame Ganna Walska, the creator of Lotusland.

Ganna Walska in the garden / Archive image supplied by Ganna Walska Lotusland.
Floribunda roses and hedges in the parterre (or formal flower garden), at the back of the Lotusland house.
The pathways bend and wind through Lotusland, a 37-acre private garden tucked away in the Santa Barbara foothills.

It’s a surprise to find that Lotusland exists in California, or anywhere at all for that matter. The garden is a showstopper, built amongst the bones of a former commercial nursery in one of America’s most exclusive zip codes (Drew Barrymore, Bruce Willis and Oprah are locals). Start tallying up the plant species within the grounds, and you’ll fast arrive at 3,000 – and find yourself still counting. The sight of rare cycads – including three South African ‘Wood’s cycads’ (Encephalartos woodii), extinct in the wild – neighbouring ornamental flower gardens and giraffes rendered in topiary gives you a hint of the exaggerated vision nurtured here.

Ganna Walska created Lotusland, but in many ways the garden created her, too. Both emerged from a place of pure desire, the kind where you start with nothing and end up with everything, then some.

Ganna, who preferred to be called ‘Madame’ through her lifetime, was born in Poland in the late 1880s, married a Russian count when she was nineteen and then, successively, five other men (a handful of millionaire tycoons and a yoga guru included) while pursuing an opera career and spiritual illumination (through séances, the Ouija board and hypnotism) in New York. She ended up in California in the early 1940s with her last husband (Theos Bernard, the yogi), where, after a sticky divorce, she devoted herself, and her accumulated wealth, to plants.

Vintage photographs of Ganna don’t give off the impression of a gardener – but they do point to her maverick side. While you and I might opt for old jeans and a t-shirt, in the garden Ganna wore designer frocks, red lipstick and floral sunhats, picked Eureka lemons in heels, and inspected her mass plantings of Kniphofia, or red hot pokers, looking dressed and ready for luncheons in LA. She had the vision, and she recruited smart landscape architects and horticulturalists to help her roll it out over forty plus years.

Ganna’s gardening, and perhaps life, philosophies were “more is better” and “if you provide the soil, the flower will bloom”. At Lotusland, this meant she planted anything and everything, en masse. You’ll find a collection of 170 different aloes, sunning themselves alongside a kidney-shaped wading pool fringed with clamshells; a forest of Australian tree ferns (Sphaeropteris cooperi) and giant staghorns (Platycerium); floribunda roses – planted within a parterre crowned with a statue of King Neptune; and an exclusively blue-grey garden, made up of everything from Chilean wine palms (Jubaea chilensis) and blue atlas cedars (Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca’) to camphor trees (Cinnamomum camphora) and Queensland kauris (Agathis robusta).

Cactus, succulent and euphorbia bring the walls of the main residence to life. Mass plantings of everything – including golden barrel cactus – were the signature style of Madame Ganna Walska.
Just your average water stairway lined with cypress trees, and the booming blue sky of California.

In many ways Lotusland is a personal snow dome, gently sheltering the nuances and endeavours of a woman who was willing to auction off the remnants of her old life – including a million dollar jewellery collection via Sotheby’s in the 1970s – to bankroll the new.

In the pre-CITES era, money gave Ganna access to a huge range of rare and endangered plants and when it comes to cycads alone, she was able to gather over 200 species – leaving Lotusland with one of the most important collections in the world.

And what of the namesake lotus? Well, they’re in a converted swimming pool, which was installed by previous owners in the 1920s, but remodelled by Ganna in the 50s for the greener good. When she and her yogi bought the property it was known as “Cuesta Linda” (Spanish for “Pretty Hill”). But they changed it to “Tibetland”, and imagined it as a spiritual retreat for travelling monks. Within three or four years their marriage broke down and Ganna, in her ongoing quest for contentment, renamed the place Lotusland. The sacred and American lotus flowers she left behind are in bloom right now.

Ganna was known for collecting men, but when they had, one by one, all left (two times by natural death and four times via divorce) she applied herself just as passionately to plants. In her autobiography, Always Room at the Top, published in 1943, she sought to explain all the husbands, saying:

“Contrary to general opinion derived from a great deal of hearsay about my marriages and divorces, I never inspired quickly passing flirtations. Men whose lives I touched always professed rather a profound love for me. I was the woman of their whole life, the lady of their Destiny – the Only One.”

And that’s fair enough. But more than any man, it was California that had a profound effect on Ganna. She wrote of her soul beginning to stir in California – and with this in mind, it’s very tempting to think that plants, in their own way, were one of her ultimate liberators.

There are quiet traces of Lotusland’s past in and around the grounds – recognisable in the California live oaks, in clumps of Monterey cypress, and 100-year old olive trees – but Ganna was a radical, and mostly the garden DNA is her own. You might see it in the water stairs, falling lightly into a pond within a Japanese garden of azaleas, maples and pines, sculpted niwaki-style. Or in the cactuses that pose in front of Lotusland’s pink-walled main residence. Or it might be there in the water garden, where the lotus flowers open up each year according to a timeless botanical calendar, somehow reminding us to be, just like Ganna, “enemies of the average”.

Ganna picking lemons, by J R Eyerman / Archive image supplied by Ganna Walska Lotusland.
Ganna and her Kniphofia, by J R Eyerman / Archive image supplied by Ganna Walska Lotusland.
Eucalypts and cypress point the way to Ganna’s wishing well.
It’s bloom time in the water garden – Ganna converted a swimming pool to make a home for these beauties.
The cactus garden, complete with 300-odd species of cactus.