Visit to Lotusland, part 1: Theatre Garden, lotus pond, & Japanese Garden

Grassy amphitheater in the Theatre Garden

Lotusland is theater. It’s designed to thrill, seduce, and transport you. And, boy, was I thrilled, seduced, and transported during my visit over Memorial Day weekend.

Lotus pond — no blooms yet. The lotus bloom later in the summer.

This Santa Barbara, California, garden, which had topped my gardens-to-see list for several years, is home to an extraordinary assemblage of exotic plants, seemingly the weirder the better. Imagine Sissinghurst’s billowy flower borders and tasteful, classic ornamentation. Now try to imagine its exact opposite: Dr. Seussian plants with spiny, “melted,” creeping, hairy, starry, or columnar forms and textures.

Massed Agave attenuata along the estate’s former main drive

And now imagine masses of single species lining a drive or comprising a mini-forest.

Imagine decorative accents like a giant clamshell fountain, softball-sized chunks of jewel-like slag glass, and stone “grotesques.”

Stone figures — “grotesques” — add humor and whimsy to the Theatre Garden.

Lotus pond

The place is a magicland of one woman’s imagination, built through her love of excess and her desire to have the best collection of the most unusual plants that money could buy.

The late Madame Ganna Walska, Polish-born Hanna Puacz, reinvented herself numerous times during her 96 years, segueing from aspiring (but panned) opera singer to social climber (she married six times and amassed a fortune along the way) to well-known socialite to eccentric garden designer and avid plant collector. Lotusland, the 37-acre pleasure garden she created after giving up on husbands, is her inspired creation in the hills of Santa Barbara. Upon her death in 1984 she bequeathed her estate and garden to the Ganna Walska Lotusland Foundation, which maintains and continues to add to the garden, and which offers tours by appointment to the public.

Snarled in Memorial Day traffic, my husband and I arrived late for our self-guided tour (only available to members; non-members must tour with a docent, and everyone must have a reservation), but the welcoming staff was very accommodating and invited us to explore right up until gate-closing time. Still, I felt the pressure of not-enough-time-to-see-everything (the garden would be closed the rest of the weekend). With only an hour and a half at our disposal, at my urging we dashed past portions of the garden to view the charismatic spaces I’d longed to see after reading other bloggers’ posts about Lotusland.

Buddha framed by a Japanese maple in the Japanese Garden. Although beautiful, I felt the Japanese Garden was out of place at Lotusland due to its admirable restraint. Restraint has no place in the rest of the garden.

The images in this introductory post comprise some of the eye-catching vignettes that made me pause in my mad dash toward particular gardens. Stay tuned for the bizarre, the wondrous, and the exoticism of Lotusland proper. Up next: The house garden with cactus and euphorbia.

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

14 Responses

  1. peter schaar says:

    Lotusland instantly became one of my favorite gardens. She did excess perfectly. I thought the Japanese garden and one or two other spots offered a good foil to the rest, helping to bring out the excess. My favorite parts were the cycad collection and the cactus garden around the house.

    Good point about the Japanese Garden, Peter. If I’d had more time to see everything, I might have welcomed the more restrained gardens at Lotusland as a foil to the rest. I unfortunately missed the cycad garden, but the cactus garden around the house — and the Cactus Garden proper — wowed me. —Pam

  2. rebecca says:

    Yet ANOTHER garden to add to my bucket list – I’ve never heard of this one. The “grotesques” particularly caught my eye.

    Rebecca, Lotusland is a wonder. I hope you get to visit sometime soon! —Pam

  3. Jenny says:

    What an exciting visit this is going to be.

    You’ll want to add this garden to your must-see list, Jenny. —Pam

  4. Phillip says:

    This is a garden that I’ve wanted to see too. I’m glad you got a chance to visit, hope that I can one day.

    Phillip, there are a lot of great reasons to visit Santa Barbara, including Lotusland and Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, not to mention the beautiful ocean views and tropical beauty. Might as well make your reservations now. —Pam

  5. Mamaholt says:

    Love those statues!

    Can’t wait to see more.

    Sorry you were rushed….CA traffic rivals no other.

    L.A. traffic astonished us. It puts Houston to shame. —Pam

  6. Shirley says:

    Those statues are just right for the theater garden and it’s nice to see them up close.

    Look forward to the rest of your trip!

    I hope to have my next post up by this evening, Shirley. —Pam

  7. Gerhard Bock says:

    I was at Lotusland over spring break but somehow missed the Theater Garden. Will check it out the next time. Like you I became a member so I could do the self-guided tour. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to go back while my membership is still good :-).

    Looking forward to your next post.

    :: Bamboo, Succulents and More ::

    Gerhard, your series on Lotusland, which I read before our trip, is simply inspirational. You wrote about the gardens and photographed them so marvelously that I almost felt I didn’t need to see them in person. Well, that’s an exaggeration, of course, but I’ve referred to your series many times. I’ll link to it in my final post about visiting Lotusland. —Pam

  8. Gerhard Bock says:

    Pam, that’s so kind of you to say. I wanted my posts on Lotusland to inspire others to visit. So many people have never heard of Lotusland–in fact, I’m beginning to think Lotusland is better known overseas than here in the U.S.

    Your posts certainly inspired me! I agree that Lotusland is surprisingly unknown. —Pam

  9. sandy lawrence says:

    Oh, goody! Can’t wait. My traveling days are over, so I get to see these wonderful gardens through your camera eye. Thanks for including your readers on this tour. Like Rebecca, I find those grotesques intriguing. Oh yes, and Happy Anniversary!

    Thanks, Sandy. I’m happy to provide tours for the armchair traveler. My next post about Lotusland is up now! —Pam

  10. Looks like a great garden to visit. If not for garden bloggers, I might never have even heard of it.

    Looking forward to more of the tour, and more great photos.

    Thanks for “touring” with me, Linda. I hope you enjoy the series on Lotusland. —Pam

  11. Looks like I need to visit someday – thanks for the great pics, that are so cool to look at today! So much there, but that garden amphitheater looks so well-set into the land, it is as good as nature itself.

    Yes, and I didn’t get a good picture of this, but behind the “stage”, which had footlights of a bright, variegated grass (limelight coloring and all), were narrow hedges that served as stage wings, where the actors could wait for their scene before stepping out on stage. It was marvelously planted. —Pam

  12. Laurie says:

    I’m so glad you’re posting this tour — Lotusland is on my list of gardens to visit this summer. Luckily, it’s just up the coast so i might be able to go more than once before the fall comes! I love excess, so I am looking forward to hearing more about this garden before I go!

    Oh, lucky you, Laurie, to be able to visit more than once in a season! You’ll have so much fun. —Pam

  13. ricki says:

    “Thrilled, seduced and transported”…I never thought I would get hooked on internet porn, but I am anxiously awaiting MORE!

    Ha ha! Well, that’s a tantalizing set-up, I agree. I hope my posts will deliver. It was a rushed tour at midday, but I trust my enthusiasm will come through in the upcoming posts. —Pam

  14. […] a culture shock from the extravagant exoticism of Lotusland, the first garden we visited in Santa Barbara. Arriving at the botanic garden right at opening on a […]