In many aspects, Lotusland gardens in Montecito, near Santa Barbara, embody much of the soul of California. The tenacity and drive of its founder and her adventurous life are mirrored over the impressively tended 15 hectares of soil fashioned over 40 years. It was from scratch an ambitious project which only a mind bordering on obsessive tendencies could see through to completion.
Ganna Walska (1887-1984), a gutsy eastern European born in Belarus, then a section of a larger Poland, chose opera as her passport to a life of glamour and travel. It took her some time to realize that her name would not pass to history as a singer but her theatricality could take her to a world of adventure and triumph. So, she got husbands, money and a certain reputation by means rather secondary to her first consuming passion. The divorce of the fifth husband and the marriage to the much younger sixth, Theos Casimir Bernard, a Buddhist with Hollywood looks, brought her to this amiable and exclusive corner of the Californian coastline. Then life changed forever for this rich bohemian.
Lotusland is her legacy, a botanical empire, a garden of sorts, where families of cacti of all formidable shapes and sizes live close to Walska’s interpretation of a Japanese garden and to her more haphazard spots of classical landscaping. The spiny armors of the plants and their sheer accumulation (“if one is good a hundred is better” was one of her more familiar expressions) leave the visitor with a sensation of having emerged from a strange and disquieting dream. It is as if the place had been conceived by a visionary from an outer planet. She loved cycads, that rare and prehistoric family of plants to which nature gave two sexes. So, it is not a surprise that she also collected minerals and jewelry of astonishing shape and value.
The glamour that she pursued during her younger years gradually gave way to spiritual search and a communion with nature. But her self-identity as a singer was hard to forget, practicing regularly and into old age to an audience of perplexed Mexican laborers from the balcony of her cottage.
Her life crystalized in her garden: a relentless chase for more and for better, of high ambitions and constant change. Her last volte-face, her enduring love was this unique production orchestrated over more than four decades.
Botanists will swoon over it and the rest of us will not help admiring the sheer drive of a woman of many passions that gave us this strange and dreamy Lotusland.