Usually regarded as one of the most beautiful gardens in the United States, Lotusland is a non-profit botanical garden located in Montecito, Santa Barbara County, California. Ganna Walska, a Polish-born opera singer, celebrity and socialité, acquired the 37-acre estate in 1941 as a private retreat, and designed and developed the garden in it in a way that appear ahead of her time to many, particularly regarding her use of mass plants.
It is said that Madame Walska did not want a garden with the sort of flowers that everyone could wear on their chest. This helps to understand why it took her about 43 years to plan and plant her garden. But thanks to all her hard work, the result is Lotusland, a rich spectacle of colors and fragrances that offers different surprises to its visitors during the whole year, according to the blooming rhythms and tempos of each type of flower in each season.
The history of Lotusland is also the history of the owners of the property. Ralph Kinton Stevens bought it in 1882, and with his wife, Caroline Lucy Tallant, named it Tanglewood. They planted tropical plants and established a lemon and palm nursery for home and commercial use. After the death of Stevens, his widow transformed the property into a guest ranch, at some point leased it to a school, and started renting it to winter visitors, before finally selling it to George Owen Knapp in 1913.
Mr Knapp in turn sold the property to New Yorkers E. Palmer and Marie Gavit in 1916. They named it now Cuesta Linda.
Cuesta Linda’s main residence, including its landscape elements and garden structures, was designed by architect Reginald Johnson for the Gavits in 1919, and completed in 1920, in a Mediterranean Revival Style. In the years 1921-1927, the Gavit family commissioned architect George Washington Smith for some alterations in the original design, now following the Spanish Colonial Revival Style. The alterations included a perimeter wall, a pavilion, a stable, a swimming pool, a bathhouse, the addition of several landscape buildings, the water garden pool house, and the form and the pink color of the estate’s walls.
After the death of Marie Gavit in 1937, whose husband had died some time before her, the property was sold to Humphrey Clarke, a British diplomat, in 1939.
Two years later, in 1941, Madame Walska traveled to California for some weeks, and became interested in purchasing a small ranch or farm in there. Her husband, “The White Lama” Theos Bernard, also became interested in finding a property that could serve as a retreat for Tibetan lamas. They bought Cuesta Linda, and renamed it Tibetland. Landscape architect Lockwood de Forest, Jr. redesigned the place, installing an orchard, a succulent garden, and other gardens around the cottages, and replacing with cacti the traditional landscaping in front of the main residence.
However, after a period of personal problems and legal battles, Madame Walska and Theos Bernard decided to divorce in 1946. That is the moment when she decided to give the estate its current name, Lotusland, and started working on landscape planning and garden design for it. During the following decades, she received assistance of Ralph Stevens, Santa Barbara Superintendent of Parks, local artist Joseph Knowles, Sr., orchid grower Fritz Kubish, staff gardener Frank Fujii, stonemason Oswald Da Ros, and a series of gardeners like William Paylen, Charles Glass, and Robert Foster.
With the death of Madame Walska in 1984, Lotusland became part of the Ganna Walska Lotusland Foundation, which took care of the property and prepared it for public tours between 1984 and 1993, the year when it finally opened to the public as a nonprofit botanical garden.
Since that year, visitors can enjoy Lotusland’s paths full of pools, fountains and sculptures during their excursion while they contemplate the magnificent gardens that wait for them almost behind each corner of the estate. Some of these gardens feature plants with common chromatic themes, as if they sprung from the brush of a painter. That is the case of the Blue Garden, where the visitor may find different plants with silvery to blue-gray foliage. Other gardens are identified according to the kind of fauna that they can support, like the Butterfly Gardens, the design that was used for them, like the Parterre and the Topiary Gardens, the origin of the plants that they feature, like the Japanese and the Tropical Gardens, or the medium where they grow, like the Water Garden. But most of them are an explicit tribute to the plants themselves. That is the feeling that a visitor may experience in the Bromeliads Gardens, the Cactus Garden, the Cycad Garden, the Fern Gardens, the Orchards Collections, and the Succulent Gardens. All these gardens are a living display of innovative design and thoughtful creativity, with a deep care for botanical and horticultural richness.