I don’t remember the first time I heard of Lotusland. It was probably in the early naughties on the pages of Garden Design, when they were in a coastal infatuation phase. It could have been when I was a librarian in the drafty shelves of Weigel at Kansas State University - reading Winifred Dobyns’ California Gardens or David Streatfields’ California Gardens, dreaming of warmer days and balmy nights by the sea.
My love was cemented watching the beautiful footage in Monty Don’s Around the World in 80 Gardens. A surrealist garden made by an opera singer with multiple love affairs? Her last husband disappeared under mysterious circumstances? This is a garden for me.
*by the way, these songs are the songtrack as you listen to this: Robert Ellis's California and Katy Perry's Teenage Dream
I got into Los Angeles late, 4am to my jet-lagged central time adjusted body. I dragged through the rental car station, the In-and-Out full of paper caps and teenage enthusiasm, then the airport hotel. Next morning, I hauled myself up the coast to Montecito. Excavation from the mudslides had only begun. I could see buildings shifted in place, tidewater marks showing where the mud had enveloped buildings, crushed and consumed them.
Fortunately, the forces of destruction had stopped short of Lotusland. You’re not allowed to just wander around and enjoy the place on your own. I was lucky to be assigned to a quite knowledgeable guide called Madge, along with a relatively innocuous group of fellow tourists - a straight couple from Victoria, a gay couple from San Francisco, and an enlightened family group (the daughters had done time helping out with ecotourism in Argentina and Belize) from Seattle.
The thing that had always captured my imagination with Lotusland is that it seemed to explore a treatment of plants in a highly artistic way. In the photos that I’d seen, plants were utilized as aesthetic elements. Their physical qualities were utilized in keeping with an individual, brave, exploratory aesthetic. The actual experience of the place didn't betray that thought. My presuppositions were correct.
There seemed to be a complete innocence and sincerity in the choice of garden elements. Madge explained that the glass edges were the trash from bottle molding at a nearby soda plant. After pouring, the leftover chunks of clear green glass were tossed away. Madame Walska, the creator of Lotusland, saw a new use for them in edging garden walks. The chunks of glowing green glass resonate with the glowing garden greens.
An innocent approach to materials characterizes the entire garden. One of the most iconic images for me has always been the giant shells in the swimming pool garden. Madge explained that these weren’t sculptural replicas, as I expected, but actual giant shells imported from islands in southeast Asia. You could get big pearls out of those.
Such innocence isn’t limited to inanimate objects. It extends to the use of plants. Since my time in south Florida, I’ve thought that it would be amazing to create a forest of ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata). Their weird strappy leaves, corky stems, and swollen root bases give them a Dr. Suess quality that I really want to explore en masse. Of course, there’s a ponytail palm forest already growing at Lotusland. You can walk adjacent to, but not through it - so there’s still scope for my design imagination.
I’m not going to go into the full history of Ganna Walska and Lotusland. Suffice it to say that this garden is a multilayered landscape that reflects multiple individual aesthetics - all layered in to the garden that exists today. The cactus garden is an incredible collection created post-Walska. In it, hundreds of towering cylindrical clusters and bulbous clumps create a singularly monumental experience.
I’ve never seen anything like this cactus garden. It’s so sculptural, with the spires and spines. Hummingbirds flying around, buzzing between jewel-toned iridescent flowers.
After the cactus garden, it was almost a relief to get back to familiarity with an allee of hundred-year old olives. The contorted trunks, silvery leaves, fallen black fruits, resonated with my classically-educated soul. Those filtered shadows felt like home. Not to mention the terminal fountain with horsey motifs.
So far, I’ve been slathering on the adjectives. The next area of the garden needs only two nouns: tree ferns.
In this woodland, coastal live oaks are interplanting with a multilayered canopy of lacey tree ferns casting the most incredible flickering shade. Baskets of staghorn fern are suspended from the live oaks. Begonias and blechnum carpet the forest floor. I’m in heaven.
My vision of Lotusland had been built up to incredible heights over the years. It’s very rare for such hopes not to be ground into the mud on actual experience. But Lotusland was as good as I’d imagined.
Possibly better. Let’s go back soon.
I drove up to see my parents a few weeks ago. Arkansas to Missouri along Highway 67, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the region. It had been raining for a solid week, turning the delta fields into an inland sea.
If you’ve never driven through the delta in flood, you can’t imagine that drive. The water gropes and gurgles at the crumbling asphalt edge of the two-lane road. Semi lights brake 50 feet in front of me, trying to avoid a deep water plunge. A full moon hangs low over the horizon, a matte white disc flecking the waves with light. The waters churn and surge, ever southward carrying silty discharge to the gulf of Mexico. One careless moment and you’re submerged.
For me, that drive is routine, regardless of high or low water. After three years, my car stops automatically at the one gas station along the way that stocks lime Perrier. (What’s up with the citizens of Corning, Arkansas, that they stock such a bougie drink?)
After those first hours driving through the Delta, I get to the edge of the Ozarks - near Poplar Bluff, Missouri, where the mountains jut out into the flat wash of the Mississippi Delta. Climbing those hills, my little Rogue has to put in extra effort - and my cell phone falls to two bars or less. I’m used to this rhythm, plunging deep into downloads over the last hours driving through the mountains and river hills. I’ve listened to Lev Grossman’s Magicians series so many times on that drive, feeling through Quentin’s tribulations and messy journey of self-discovery. Nerd worries.
I follow the audiobook time with a silly - but personally important - musical ritual. I’ve done this for years, starting when I was in college. I take that left turn from J Road (the windiest road in the universe) onto Highway 51, I roll down my windows and blare John Fullbright (Very First Time). Then, as I pass the Walgreens and Sonic and turn down St. Joseph Street, I flip over to Adele (Million Years Ago, Hometown Glory). It puts me back in the headspace for home.
On this last time that I took that drive, I noticed something special. I’d been in Little Rock, where spring was in full swing - with cherries and daffodils and bradford pears in full lascivious bloom - so I was startled by the sudden chill. Besides a yellow flicker of forsythia, the landscape was still in winter drabs. But it wasn’t silent. When I rolled down the window to blare my soulful jams, a solid blast of amphibian orchestration. The forest was frozen, but the spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) were making noise.
Their sound hit me right in the heart. Those noisy buggers were the soundtrack to my youth. But they weren’t the only voices. Hearing the spring peepers made me think of some of the other voices that influenced me as a youngster - and continue to shape the way I approach the world. Here are quick glimpses into five of my youthful influences:
“The edge of the sea is a strange and beautiful place. All through the long history of Earth it has been an area of unrest where waves have broken heavily against the land, where the tides have pressed forward over the continents, receded, and then returned. For no two successive days is the shore line precisely the same.” (Rachel Carson, The Edge of the Sea, 1953) More than any other individual writer, Rachel Carson’s work influenced the way that I think about about writing about nature. She’s the kind of writer that I want to be. If I can evoke the same deep emotion with my words that her writing evoked in me, I’ve succeeded. I read The Edge of the Sea in my early teens and I still think it’s the most beautiful piece of writing that I’ve encountered. It draws you in, word by word, line by line. I don’t know how to be this poetic without being maudlin - but it gives me an ideal to pursue.
“A garden is a mistress, and gardening is a blend of all the arts, and if it is not the death of me, sooner or later, I shall be much surprised. A pleasant sort of death, I venture to suggest, which runs in the family. One of my grandfathers died of a clump of Iris stylosa; it enticed him from a sick bed on an angry evening in January, luring him through the snow-drifts with its blue and silver flames; he died of double pneumonia a few days later. It was probably worth it.” (Beverly Nichols, Merry Hall, 1951) Do I even have to explain how this is significant? Anybody who’s read my writing can probably identify the acerbic influence of this mid-20th century writer on my voice and aesthetic. Nichols’ writings explore queer identity through the lens of aesthetics and garden-making with an incredible sense of absurdity and humor. From what I’ve heard and read, Nichols’ gardening books reflect the most joyful bits of his experience as a human. From early exposure to Nichols’ writing, I understood gardening - not as some purely practical pursuit - but as an approach to life enmeshed in the appreciation of art, music, and story. His words helped a weird kid who liked plants envision a life full of adventure, excitement and beautiful gardens. Thanks, Beverly!
“Wherever I go, whichever place I travel to, whatever garden I may finally sit in, I’ll never be free of this one. Like some deep tenebrous scar I’ll carry the making of our garden with me forever.” (Mirabel Osler, A Gentle Plea for Chaos, 1989) Not many people know Mirabel Osler’s work, which is a shame. Anybody who uses the word “tenebrous” is ok in my lexicon (see my earlier post “Dictionary Boy Goes to the Garden” for further info on my word madness). Ms Osler’s books introduced me to French gardens, which had an aesthetic and approach that made way more sense for the central United States than the UK-oriented gardening books in which I’d immersed myself. Remember, in the early naughties, this was all pre-Lurie Garden, pre-High Line. Oudolf’s aesthetic was still confined to the Netherlands and a few UK publications. Oehme van Sweden was as naturalistic as we got in the United States. So Mirabel Osler’s approach of taking a wider “landscape” approach to gardening felt like a revelation to this weird boy growing weird plants in shallow clay beneath giant red oaks in the Missouri countryside.
“Once again, the gardening cook has every advantage: not only a crop of bright green leaves, which make a fine cooked vegetable - highly esteemed in Italy and Spain - but also young turnips which can be harvested, at their best, when they are small and sweet and perfect.” (Geraldine Holt, The Gourmet Garden, 1990). It’s completely absurd to think about the vagaries of fortune that somehow led to this book on gourmet vegetable growing in Europe being included in the permanent collection of my small-town library in rural Missouri. I can’t imagine that anyone else ever checked it out. Remember, this was a town in which people let their zucchini grow to the side of baseball bats (let’s be honest, at that stage you have to call them “marrows”and left them like vague threats on the doorsteps of unsuspecting “friends”. Nobody picked turnips when they were the size of golf balls. So, for me, this book was an epiphany. It awakened me to the possibility that there was something wonderful about growing food. I still haven’t successfully cooked a recipe from this book. But it expanded my perspective on edibles from the pedestrian to the extraordinarily.
“In this climate, the sun is a more active and less neutral partner than in a northern one, imposing constraints, demanding attention. At its best perhaps in late winter and early spring, when the mistral has produced this marvel that envelops you like a liquid, it gives as much pleasure, all by itself, as a whole garden of flowers.“ (Louisa Jones, Gardens in Provence, 2001) I actually don’t remember how or where I first encountered this book. I must have seen it referenced somewhere and gotten it by interlibrary loan. This book really drove home to me the relationship between garden aesthetics and the realities of the larger landscape. That, while horticultural techniques and practices could augment or enhance the realities of place (soil, topography, climate), the overall aesthetic of a garden was still directly tied to the qualities of the larger landscape. That successful gardens draw on the best qualities of a place rather than trying to impose something extraneous upon a site. It was actually difficult to pull an individual quote from Ms Jones’ writing, as the whole thing is built up in a wonderful matter-of-fact layering that builds a highly logical approach to landscape - a philosophy that psychogeographers and other garden writers would do well to mind.
Few people have such nerdy landscape histories as I hold precious - and continue to treasure. But these words have shaped how I approach landscape - and life - on a daily basis. They form a chorus that underpins my daily activity - much as the spring peepers bleeped a soundtrack to my youthful gardening endeavors. You may not have the same kinds of ridiculous rituals as I hold precious - but surely there are some voices you’ve cached. Bring them back to the light. Only you know what treasures you’ve buried and forgotten.
I’m an unashamed member of the Google Maps generation. It’s a reflex. Whenever I hear about a place that I don’t know, I’ll click over to Maps, swoop down across the blue-green world and stomp through the disjointed reality of street view. I have a definite sense of resentment when the aerial imagery is pixelated or the blue line of available street view imagery doesn’t go all the way down a rural lane or footpath. “See the world without leaving your couch!”
With these proclivities, you’d might expect that I’d have a solid route planned out when I go to visit a garden. I do when it’s a garden I know well. But the first time that I visit a place (garden, city, rural environs), I want to discover it on foot. No expectations, no agenda. I’ll take a map from the stack, just in case, then shove it straight in my back pocket.
This is partly due to my complete lack of any sense of direction or orientation. The more professional-sounding explanation is that I want the place to reveal itself to me as I move through it. I’m fortunate enough to be relatively physical able (though lazy), so I have the privilege of being extravagant with my movements. I don’t mind trekking back and forth, discovering new views and spatial experiences as I move through the landscape. Insect-like, I follow a jerky and convoluted path as I dart from one object of interest to another. Usually, it’s a plant.
All of which setup is a long way of getting to the point that, when I visited the Huntington Library, Art Collection, and Botanical Gardens two weeks ago, I went through the gardens in the “wrong” direction.
I’d already been startled in the parking lot by the bloom of a giant magenta tabebuia in full flower, plus the glory of California-blue ceanothus lapping in puddles between rows of parked cars. So once I’d gotten through the admissions process, I took the first right directly into the garden. This put me in a weird succession of spaces - lawns with planting bays designed for showcasing rotating collections of large-scale exterior art installations.
After a bit of aimless wandering through this uninteresting bit, I stumbled into a thicket that was labelled as the camellia collection. These camellias weren’t the giant bastions of bloom I’m used to in Little Rock. Apparently the mild California winters mean that they dole out a few blooms at a time. Stingy, if you ask me. Pushing through a few of these disappointing plants, I emerged into sunshine. A giant lawn spread out in front of me, flanked by banks of camellias, lined with astonishing Washingtonia palms and a revolting collection of figurative marble statues with classical aspirations. With this, I started to realize that - for me - the Huntington was a combination of moments of sheer beauty and instances of incredible ugliness, ricochetting from one pole to another with a fierceness that I hadn’t experienced for a long time.
The next area of the garden was another example of this aesthetic badminton. You’ve already seen the digitalis meadow photo in the entry paragraphs. I loved those chunky digitalis spires rising out of messy grass. Directly across the way, those same digitalis were enmeshed in a horticultural purgatory of lisianthus, matthiola, and pansies.
The Asian gardens - both Chinese and Japanese - evoked equally conflicting feelings. I loved the wonderful craft evidenced in the materiality of hardscape, furnishings, and plantings. Just look at that carefully-laid stonework and regularly irregularly edging. Somebody thought about that.
But the overall effect of the Chinese garden didn’t work for me.
In the strange intersticial woodland area between Chinese and Japanese gardens, I found a planting that I absolutely adored - the anemone-like Eomecon chionantha with its dangling white flowers naturalized in between bolsters of crimson camellias and shag carpet clumps of liriope.
There were a few other strange and wonderful things in this area - multi-tiered azalea standards planted in scattered drifts, cymbidiums naturalized on the forest floor, and unfortunate outcroppings of volcanic rock.
Mounting the many stairs to the Japanese garden (I counted them but didn’t jot the number down, it was at least 3 digits), I was thrilled at the wonderful material complexity. My designer soul got all excited about those multiple layers...mondo grass, cut stone, pebble, raised wooden barrier, cut stone setts, cut stone paver. That’s how you define an edge.
After all this aesthetic badminton, I got into some parts of the garden that resonated more strongly with me. The cactus gardens were truly incredible. The forms are so different to anything that I work with on a daily basis - glowing spheres of barrel cactus, bristling pincushions of mammillaria, all-consuming tufts of puya. They challenge my aesthetic vocabulary - I don’t encounter these forms, colors, and light effects in the wet subtropical and temperate ecosystems of the southeast.
So, yes, I went to the Huntington. It’s a truly wonderful place. Some beautiful bits, some ugly bits. I learned about southern California plants - and I learned about me. Maps can give you a lot - but they can’t give you the sensational memories of a walk in the California spring. Time to lace up your walking shoes and go...