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.