Return to Lotusland

Pam's recent post mentioning Lotusland prompts me to share some more pictures from my visit there.

First some notes:

If you plan to visit Lotusland, I encourage you to explore buying a Lotusland membership so you can take a self-guided tour and move at your own pace. Otherwise you'll be on the two-hour docent tour which moves much too fast. Without any time to linger or contemplate, you may end up feeling overwhelmed like I was. Maintaining the heightened state of alertness necessary to absorb the garden and its many choices and details while constantly on the move left me mentally and physically exhausted.

Financially, the membership is a no-brainer. A docent tour costs $35. For two people, that's $70. For only $5 more you get a membership that lets you bring a guest for a self-guided tour and gives you a 10% discount at the garden shop. I didn't get anything from the docent that I couldn't get from the Lotusland website. Since you have to call Lotusland to book a reservation, you might as well discuss membership options and the possibility of a self-guided tour with the person who takes your call.

The docent tours might be good for novices or if you just like to take guided tours. But don't expect to have any time to sit down and contemplate the garden or compose any photographs. And don't expect a docent to tell you much about the plants. He knew some of them, but I knew more. I've since decided it's rare to find a garden docent who knows anything much about botany or horticulture. (Note: San Francisco Botanical Garden docents are extensively trained and have a lot to say about plants. Free tours depart from the bookstore kiosk every day at 1:30 p.m. Ahem.)

If you've been mediterranean gardening in California or elsewhere for any length of time, you will recognize many of Lotusland's plants. What will blow your mind is the massing of those plants, and the effects of age. Judging by the size and maturity of many plants found throughout the garden, Lotusland is astonishingly well-preserved.

The garden's primary author, Madame Ganna Walska, a Polish-born opera singer and European socialite, came to California after living in Paris and New York. She bought the Santa Barbara estate that would later become Lotusland in 1941. A theatrical free-thinker with an interest in eastern mysticism, Walska became the very paradigm of Californian bohemia. Suffice it to say, her gardens capture and maintain a rare essence.

Lotusland is not static. The Lotusland Foundation recently opened a newly designed three-quarter acre cactus garden, the second new Lotusland garden added in the post-Walska era. (She died in 1984.)

Lotusland does not want you go arrive early. You're assigned a 30-minute window to arrive in. The parking lot gate opens and shuts promptly. Once in, you can meander around in a small area and visit the garden shop.


It was unfortunate for photography that we had bright sun during our visit. It's also unfortunate that my camera lens is quite contaminated by dust. I had to discard many pictures.

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Lotusland has many pools and ponds, and they're all very different.


I wondered if this was all mine, would I spend whole days at different pools depending on my whim that morning?


Plants repeated throughout Lotusland: aloe, agave, euphorbia, palm, tree fern.


For a garden to be memorable, it must have some unusual specimens. Not necessarily unusual plants; unusual twists on familiar plants is satisfactory--perhaps even preferable. Like these tree fern twins.

Dicksonia antarctica

(Note: On the Lotusland scale, this hardly ranks as unusual. I'm calling it out as an example of something that's attainable in an ordinary garden that strives to be memorable.)

Unexpected topiaries work too.


So do old things. Lotusland's olive trees predate Ganna Walska's arrival, but she knew to keep them.

Olea europa

This estate's main house has memorable foundation plantings.




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I like the rough glass chunks bordering the path; they have a big impact.



Having a path empowers you to enter alien landscapes.



The drift of old ponytail palms (Nolina recurvata syn. Beaucarnia recurvata) will doubtless arouse the caudex fetishists.


These agaves at the border of the great lawn amused me.


Walska designed the hanging basket chapeaux as anti-squirrel devices. Hang them in mass, and it's art.


The eight-pointed star, formed by the superimposition of two squares, is called an octagram.


A pool like this in Mediterranean gardens harks back to Moorish influence on that region a thousand years ago. The octagram figures prominently in Islamic art, but it goes back much further than that. Half way between square and circle, the eight-pointed star has symbolic associations with wholeness, rebirth/regeneration, and life-death continuity.


And on that note, I'm going to take this symbolic opportunity to wrap up. (Because I want/need to eat dinner and play with my cats.)


Here are some flowers which have their own symbolic associations.


Anonymous said...

What an intriguing garden. Love those squirrel proof hangers like so many hats on dreadlocks. Gnarly!

Frances, said...

Thanks Chuck, for taking so many photos that we can get a real feel for the places that you visit. I love the octagram idea, it is calling me to use it in some way, maybe a hypertufa planter, but making the form would be tricky, but cool. I have always wondered, does it take a long time to load all those photos, do you try and keep them in a certain order, or load several at one time? We have the high speed dsl and the photos load quickly, the macro much faster than the full garden shots, but only one at a time can be done, because the wireless wavers and the loading fails if it takes too long. Just wondering.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for more images, Chuck, and for your suggestion to buy a membership if I should ever make it to Lotusland. I wonder how big a donation it would take to get an early-morning tour time. ;-) I agree with you about docent-led tours, by the way.

This is such an alien landscape, like something from another planet---or the seabed. I would love to see it in person. Do you think any particular time of year would be best for a visit?

gintoino said...

That is an impressive garden! I really like the cactus plantations, like pam said they look like an alien landscape. I've always wanted to incorporate cactus and succulents in the garden. I've managed to use a few succulents, but I couldn't yet figure out the cactus part.

chuck b. said...

Gintoino, I apologize for misspelling your name all this time. Geez! My eyes...

I just put my first cactus in my garden. So far so good.

Pam, you can definitely pick a morning tour instead of an afternoon one. The afternoon schedule option seemed like the better option for us with the flexible road trip schedule and all. As far as time of year to visit goes, I have no idea. I would go any ol' time.

Frances, I upload all my pictures to Flickr, and then cut and paste the HTML from there to Blogger. I usually dump all my pictures into the Flickr uploader, click "upload", and walk away. I'm not really sure how long it takes. All my time is spent cutting and pasting HTML and writing. The writing takes longer which is why I often don't write very much.

As far as the narrative flow goes, sometimes I post pictures in the order that I took them (esp true for the SF Botanical Garden posts). Other times, I pick and choose pictures to illustrate an idea.

Les said...

Thanks for all the pics. I think I saw this garden via the wonder of television, maybe Victory Garden. I like the massing of what looks like Golden Barrel Cactus with the taller more slender cacti, but my favorite is the the clam shell pool.

Brent said...

I walked by Lotusland (when it was the Shah of Iran's daughter's home, I think, and before that too) every school day between 4th and 6th grades. Like New Yorkers who never visit the Statue of Liberty, I've never yet been inside.

One night time I decided that wanted to explore in there, so I hopped the outer stucco wall only to find an inner chain link fence. Rumors abounded among the kids about what kind of protections the estate enjoyed (Dobermans?) and I heard a crashing in the eucalyptus bark that littered the ground, so I ran off very quickly.

Gardener of La Mancha said...

I remember seeing a photography of the squirrel-proof sedums when I was maybe twelve years old. Can this be so? They will always be "jellyfish in the trees "to me. Now I know where to find them.

Christopher C. NC said...

How close to achieving such magnificence can I come with no budget and a staff of one? At least I have a direction to head in.

Deviant Deziner, aka Michelle said...

Thank you Thank you, Thank you for sharing these images of Lotus Land.
I can never get enough of this garden !

I sooooo enjoyed the tour.


lisa said...

Wow...what a cool place! I especially like the hanging basket chapeaux...such a neat visual effect.