Like many, Madame Ganna Walska came to California in search of spiritual enlightenment.
Walska was a Polish opera diva. She toured Europe and the United States, collecting numerous husbands along the way. In 1941, encouraged by her sixth and final spouse (who was also her yoga guru), she purchased a 37-acre estate in Montecito, in Santa Barbara County. But a few years later, when the marriage fell apart, Walska claimed the estate as her own. She called it Lotusland.
“It is impossible to separate the creation from the creator. This is a very personal garden. It’s all Madame Ganna Walska,” said Gwen Stauffer, Lotusland’s executive director. She smiled as she described Walska. “She was a collector by heart. She collected all kinds of things, and when she found out plants were collectible she was collecting them with a vengeance, from all over the world.”
Eccentric hats, opulent gowns and glittering gemstones took a backseat to exotic flora and fauna. And Walska had an incredible knack for showcasing her newfound passion. For maximum dramatic effect, she’d instruct her gardeners to group hundreds of the same plants together, like the barrel cacti that line the estate’s driveway.
Mike Furner has worked at Lotusland for 38 years. “When Madame was trying to get ahold of one of the gardeners, she would almost sing out their names." In a falsetto voice, he imitated her. “She’d be going, ‘Chaaaarlieeee’ or ‘Mr. Tiiiilst.'"
Today, Furner tends the bromeliad garden. Also known as air plants, they’re tucked into an enchanted forest, just beyond the secluded, fanciful theatre garden where Walska sometimes performed.
“To me, it’s pretty magical walking through here," said Furner. “You come out of a succulent garden, and bam, there all of a sudden, you’re in this tropical area, as if you were walking through the forest in Costa Rica.”
A big part of Lotusland’s charm is the contrast between its classic elements -- like the impressive rose garden and expansive lawns -- and the unique plant specimens that Walska sought out. Her final creation, and a must-see stop on the tour, is the cycad garden. Cycads are Jurassic-era plants that resemble palm trees, and Lotusland features some extraordinarily rare specimens. In 1977, Walska auctioned off her treasured jewelry to create this collection.
Walska died at Lotusland in 1984. She was 96. The gardens opened to the public for tours seven years later.
Lotusland Director Gwen Stauffer admires Walska and her legacy.
“She was extraordinary," Stauffer said. "You know, I can understand why people called her eccentric; she didn’t think like anybody else. Thank goodness, because who else would come up with this incredible, crazy, beautiful designs and these gardens? Normal people don’t do that. This is fun."
Just like the lady herself, Walska’s horticultural legacy is over-the-top and unforgettable.