May 21, 2018

Getting To Know What I've Got Before It's Gone (Or, How Lotusland Survived Fire and Flood)

It took two natural disasters to push me to finally tour Lotusland, widely considered one of the 10 best gardens in the world.

Just 90 miles up the coast from Beverly Hills, it feels like a world away when you consider rush hour traffic and round-the-clock freeway congestion.

But then a few months ago, a one-two punch of the December 2017 Thomas Fire and the January 2018 mudslides hit the town where Lotusland is nestled in the foothills of Los Padres National Forest (not far from Rattlesnake Canyon and the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden)—both of which threatened everything in their path.

And that included pretty much the entirety of Montecito.

By providence or just dumb luck, Montecito Fire Department Station Number 2 is located literally kitty-corner from Lotusland—which means that when the fire reached the garden and actually ignited a palm tree, firefighters quickly extinguished it and made sure that nothing was lost.

Still, Lotusland staffers were under mandatory evacuation for nearly two weeks, having taken archives, personal collections, and even rare plants along with them to be sure that at least something would be saved.

And then, just as they were able to return and make a fresh start out of the new year, the rains came. With no vegetation to hold the earth in place, the mud slid... and slid... and slid.

Miraculously, Lotusland was spared—once again—though it did suffer some flooding. But its escape from the mud was narrow, at best, which becomes obvious when driving around the neighborhood and seeing the structures that have been decimated or consumed, like mastadons in tar.

And this all happened just as Lotusland was about to celebrate its 25th anniversary, having opened as a public garden in 1993.

Of course, European influence on the property itself dates back 136 years, when the parcel was named "Tanglewood" and became a nursery for palms and lemon trees. After that, the Gavit family took it over as "Cuesta Linda" (the "beautiful hill") and began erecting structures, including the 1919 main residence by architect Reginald Davis Johnson.

But the next owner, 55-year-old Polish opera singer Madame Ganna Walska, is the one who transformed the 27-acre estate into the "botanical nirvana" it is today—all thanks to a personal taste that was so unconventional, she declared herself the "enemy of the average." Experts discouraged her from adorning the front entrance of her main residence with cacti and euphorbias, but when they saw the final result, they praised her for her ingenuity.

In 1941, Madame originally purchased the estate as a refuge for Tibetan spiritual masters and briefly called it "Tibetland"—that is, until she and her yoga instructor husband, a.k.a. "The White Lama," divorced in 1946.

Her itch for landscape design and gardening—something she'd learned and experimented with while living in Paris—had already begun to take over at that point, making the switch to "Lotusland" a natural progression of her true passions.

So, using the extant structures that had already been built by Reginald Davis Johnson and later (circa the 1920s) George Washington Smith (sometimes credited as the "father" of Spanish Colonial Revival style), Madame began building her gardens.

And truly, Lotusland isn't just one garden, but a collective of multiple gardens, each with their own microenvironments and microclimates.

As you meander from one to another, you follow lines of slag glass, glowing like gemstones. Ganna was fascinated by these industrial byproducts and collected piles of them from a local factory to string along her garden pathways as though adorning them with the same type of jewelry she so adored collecting and wearing.

As a result of the "mass planting" that occurred under Madame Walska's direction, each garden is thick with vegetation—which creates plenty of ground cover and, in the case of the Dracaena Circle (which is full of dragon trees a.k.a. Dracaena draco), a shadowy canopy. "More is better," she'd say.

She even sold her jewelry in 1977 to fund her Cycad Garden—which, when it was completed two years later, contained over 200 species of some of the rarest and oldest plants on earth.

The cycads turned out to be Madame's "last waltz," as it were—her final project before she died at age 97 in 1984. And it was only then that her 43 years of work on Lotusland ceased.

Fortunately, the posthumous upkeep of Madame's gardens is pristine—including the ornamental gardenscapes that go way beyond perennial blooms.

As the self-proclaimed "master gardener" of Lotusland, Ganna Walska's plan—inspired by historical and cultural influences from around the world—included not only plants but also tile, water features, and statuary.

She installed pebble mosaics perhaps as a reference to those in Italy and elsewhere in Europe.

And like the civic monuments so famously found in the piazzas of Rome, Florence, Bologna, and beyond, Madame just had to have her own Neptune Fountain right in Montecito.

Inspired by Commedia dell'arte, the theatrical style that was so popular in Europe throughout the 1500s to the 1700s, Madame brought stone "grotesques" to her Theatre Garden.

And elsewhere at Lotusland, there are plenty of Moorish influences to go alongside Mediterranean and Spanish Colonial architecture—all preserved (and saved from wildfire, mudslide, and flooding).

These varied traditions come together in one of the most recognizable landmarks of Lotusland—the Horticultural Clock designed by landscaper Ralph Stevens (of Franceschi Park and Casa del Herrero fame), which has been lovingly restored.

Between the sculptures and the fountains and the plantings, it's hard to know when and where you've been transported to—certainly not the Santa Barbara area in the 21st century! And I bet that was by design.

Rather than conquering the landscape as so many developers and landowners have been known to do, Madame Walska allowed the landscape to dominate the development.

After all, anyone could have a traditional, rectangular swimming pool—as did Ganna Walska's predecessors at the estate in the 1920s. But since the concept of a "Water Garden" was much more exciting to Madame, now the lily pads are the only thing that's swimming in those waters.

During my visit, it was too early in the season for the namesake Asian lotus flowers to make an appearance, but it was just the right time for the water lilies to steal the show—like a Monet painting that's jumped off the canvas and out if its frame.

Lotusland's "exotic aquatics" include the Nymphaea lilies (a reference to the nymphs in Greek mythology) as well as Euryale, Nuphar, and Victoria (named after Queen Victoria).

And lucky for me, despite the fact that roses typically peak in June, Lotusland's Rose Garden was in full bloom this year in May.

Also blooming in May were some cacti—a rare treat to see in person, since a cactus flower generally doesn't last for more than one day.

Whether prickly pear (Opuntia) from Mexico or the Galapagos...

...or one of the many species of Cleistocactus from South America...

...a blooming cactus is a startling and colorful example of the impermanence of this world.

You've got to see it while you can, because it can all go away in an instant.

There can be too much water, or not enough. The earth can open up and swallow us whole.

And when it comes down to it, I'd rather know what I've got to lose rather than try to figure out what I might've missed out on.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Estate and Gardens of the First Lady of Beverly Hills
Photo Essay: Taking a Break at the Ranch of Repose

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