Ninety minutes north of Los Angeles in the manicured town of Montecito is a sprawling and surreal site—the 37-acre private botanical garden of a visionary eccentric.
Said eccentric visionary was Madame Ganna Walska, an international celebutante and irresistible beauty who loved plants. And opera. And seducing wealthy older men. All accounts from her era speak of a captivating creature with a preternatural proclivity for exuberance and glamorous excess.
From her humble beginnings in Poland until her death in 1984 at the age of ninety-seven, she married six men—including a Russian count, a renowned neurologist, a Rockefeller divorcée, the heir to the Smith Carpet Manufacturing company, the inventor of the Death Ray, and a Yogi mystic with a philosophy PhD—who through death or divorce passed much of their fortune along to her.
But it’s what “Madame” (née Hanna Puacz) did with her accumulated wealth that was the final glorious act in her masterpiece theatre of life. In 1941, at the urgings of her sixth and final husband (she gave up after that) she purchased a thirty-seven-acre estate ninety miles north of Los Angeles in the manicured town of Montecito. Initially intended as a retreat for Tibetan Lamas and a place for her husband to practice his spiritual work, she christened it “Tibetland.” After their divorce, she changed the name to “Lotusland” in tribute to the rare Indian flowers in her lotus pond and her newfound independence.
From that day forward her one and only love was her garden.
“She was a total diva and she was very smart. She created this place so that people would talk about her long after her death,” says our docent before heading out on a 2-hr tour through the private botanical garden she spent the last 40 years of her life designing with the brash, eccentric whimsy that she applied to every aspect of her life.
She famously sent her garden assistants out on tours of the neighborhood with strict instructions to purchase the largest and most magnificent plants they could find, regardless as to whether or not the specimens were up for sale. Armed with cash and the wrath of Walska at their backs, they always came home with the goods.
Channeling her years on the stage and penchant for theatrics, she used plants for their form and structure to create dramatic botanical experiences.
The 3,000 rare and exotic species in Lotusland are organized into enchanting chapters. Some are poetic, like the Blue Garden with its delicate mélange of blue-shaded species; some insouciant and bold, like the mass plantings of Giant Palms; some moody and biographic, like the Theatre Garden full of statues from Madame’s chateau in France that were smuggled to the USA during the war; and others gloriously excessive and wild, like the Succulent Garden with it’s Climbing Onion plants or the Cycade Garden, the second largest in the world and by far the estate’s most valuable.
It’s impossible to tour the gardens without feeling the idiosyncratic force of nature behind it, just as Madame had wished.
If You Go
Reservations: Visits are by appointment only. To make a tour reservation call [+1] 805-969-9990 or email email@example.com.
Schedule: Tours are offered 10am and 1:30pm Wednesday through Saturday between mid-February and mid-November. See the Lotusland website for further information.
Admission: Adults 19 years of age and older, $35; children age five to 18, $10; children under five, free.
Thank you Zeva Bellel for guest writing this post. Zeva is usually be found in Paris where she’s been living and working for the last ten years as a journalist, trend researcher and consultant. Her travel blog, Paris By Appoinment Only, explores Paris’ secret gems, from lingerie artisans and master masseurs to hidden restaurants. Zeva also designs custom itineraries of the city for visitors who want to go deeper on their next trip to Paris. Follow her on Twitter @parisbao
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