Vail Daily travel feature: Ganna Walska Lotusland a dramatic estate garden
Ganna Walska Lotusland is a dramatic 37-acre botanical wonder in Montecito, California, that showcases subtropical and tropical plants from around the world. Madame Walska herself had a flair for the eccentric.
I was fortunate enough to be in the area during a stay at Tom and Susan Washing’s lovely home in Montecito, California, (which I bid on during a silent auction at the Edwards Interfaith Chapel fundraiser). During my time at the gardens, I learned the fascinating story of a Polish opera singer and socialite who loved horticulture and eschewed uniformity, clearly seen in the designs of her beloved gardens. It brings to mind the similar labor of love story that we find in Vail at the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens.
Lotusland is a public garden in a private, residential neighborhood, and reservations are required to tour the property. In the unincorporated town of Montecito, it took nine years and 62 public hearings before a visitor was allowed through the gates of Ganna Walska Lotusland.
“Montecito did not want an amusement park in their backyard and limited our visitation. We are only allowed 15,000 visitors a year,” said Lotusland Director of Marketing and Communications Bob Craig.
This is why if you are planning a trip to the Santa Barbara, California. area and would like to visit these incredible gardens and learn the story of Madame Ganna Walska, you should plan ahead and secure your tickets months in advance.
“Ticket sales account for only 15 percent of our revenues, so we have to raise the rest every year,” said Craig, who attended art school at University of Colorado at Boulder and cinematography school at Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara.
Walska purchased the estate in 1941 and, with the help of some extraordinary landscape architects and gardeners, spent the next 43 years of her life designing themed gardens, including a Japanese garden, blue garden, topiary garden, butterfly garden and theatre garden. There are stories of ship captains coming into the nearby port town and being wined and dined by Walska and her staff.
“The captain would ask how they could repay them, to which they would say, ‘Just bring us a plant from the next time you travel overseas,’” Craig said.
‘ENEMY OF THE AVERAGE’
Gardener Mike Furner has worked at Lotusland for 35 years and spent time with Ganna Walska. Certainly, he has a treasure trove of stories, including some great local stories, such as the one about area youth. Craig concurred.
“Every kid that grew up in Montecito has a story about sneaking in here. You cannot do it anymore because there are fences,” Craig said.
No pesticides or chemical fertilizers are used at Lotusland. Instead they use a compost tea packed with natural ingredients and minerals. They are also proud of the insectaries, which involve rimming the gardens with beneficial insects for a non-chemical alternative to pest control. Lotusland fosters environmental stewardship through classes, seminars, workshops and their educational outreach program for local schools. A group of fourth-graders were taking a tour the day that I visited Lotusland. Every local fourth-grader takes part in this environmental education program.
Karen Kester was a young neighbor of Walska and saw her out and about as a child.
“Little did I know then that I would be managing the Lotusland Garden Shop for years,” she said.
Kester spoke eloquently about Walska sharing interesting tidbits, such as Walska did not care about what people thought about her, yet suitors waited in line to marry her. Walska was married six times. Her last husband was a young yoga practitioner who turned out to be a swindler. I am not sure why Hollywood has not made this story into a major motion picture. Ultimately, Walska found her true love in her gardens. She was the self-proclaimed “enemy of the average” who lived an exceptional life, always disavowing the ordinary.
After Walska’s death in 1984, Lotusland became a nonprofit botanic garden and opened to the public in 1993. Tours are offered between Feb. 16 and Nov. 15. Spring is a lovely time to visit with the rhododendrons, azaleas and other flowering plants in bloom.
Betty Ann Woodland is a longtime local who covers social events and fundraisers. She can be reached at highaltitudesociety@ vaildaily.com.