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An Ode to the Land of the Lotus

by germinatrix | June 1st, 2009


There ARE magical places in this world.

Places where the air feels different; thicker, charged with vibration and potential. Some of these are cathedrals of nature; tropical mangrove forests, the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, Ayer’s Rock in Australia. Others are man made – and of these, some are gardens.

One of these places in in Montecito, CA, right outside of Santa Barbara – it is a surreal, brave, haunting garden. Lotusland.


euphorbias, melting like clockseuphorbia ingens, melting like clocks

Polish opera singer Ganna Walska, a remarkable character and charmer of millionaires, created these gardens with the help of several talented landscapers – but there is no doubt that it is her eccentric spirit that guided and controlled the vision. Her aim was to collect and showcase some of the rarest and most unusual denizens of the plant kingdom; she did this by deploying the considerable funds left to her by her five (five!) dead husbands, and her instinct for theatricality.


bands of aloe arborescens and agave attenuata - drama!bands of aloe arborescens and agave attenuata – drama!

I fist visited Lotusland in 1996 – Nick and Laura arranged a Germinator meeting there. I was still a baby gardener back then, and this place made a deep impact on me . The amazing plants, the shifts in scale  … and the story of a woman who was guided by a sense of the dramatic and who was able to translate that into the horticultural arena without formal training – this really spoke to me. Of course, I didn’t have the cash to hire experts to do my bidding, so I ended up acquiring my own version of hort training – but I may never have been inspired to design gardens as a career had I not been to this incredible place at a pivotal time in my life. I wouldn’t have had the guts.


the cycad garden ... wait ... is that a velociraptor! run! hide!the cycad garden … wait … is that a velociraptor! run! hide!

In the years since that first visit, I’ve been back many times, and this time I came back with a definite purpose – my design for the project in the Yucatan is heavily influenced by Lotusland. I hope to channel the spirit of this place, mix it up with my own point of view, and let it loose on the 4 + acres I have to work with! Can I do it? I’m going to try!


walking into the aloe garden, breathless ...walking into the aloe garden, breathless …
lotus-6willard’s brothers – aloe marlothii holding court


a white reflecting pool, a clamshell fountain, and aloes galore. bliss.a white reflecting pool, a clamshell fountain, and aloes galore. bliss.

While I love all of the garden spaces that make up Lotusland, I am particularly, unabashedly, head-over-heels gah-gah when it comes to the Aloe Garden. It is so completely over the top. There must be almost 150 different varieties of aloes here, all of them given the perfect conditions to achieve optimum growth. The tree aloes are enormous, the single trunked varieties tall and statuesque, the small ones are tight and compact, and they all manage to look incredible together. There is no tricky plant combining happening here – just pure form allowed to do it’s thing. And wow – it’s thing is pretty damned AMAZING!!!


now here we have a true 'vertical garden'!now here we have a true ‘vertical garden’!

This visit, I was focusing primarily on the Cycad Garden, the Aloe Garden, the Cactus Garden, and the Bromeliad Garden. The plants and design ideas in these spaces will directly impact what I’m putting together in the Yucatan. I’m especially excited about being able to use bromeliads and tillandsias, many of which are native to the region that the hacienda is in! One area I’m designing is an ‘Air Garden’, where all of the interest will be in the trees – we are using the existing trees and attaching epiphitic cactus, bromeliads, and tillandsias. If it is 1/4 as awesome as what I see in my brain, then I’ll be over the moon!


color, color, and more color! i'm bromeliad mad.color, color, and more color! i’m bromeliad mad.


tillandsias and bromeliads cuddling up to a fallen branchtillandsias and bromeliads cuddling up to a fallen branch


are these the agaves of the tropics? i think so...are these the agaves of the tropics? i think so…

I took hundreds of pictures at Lotusland, and I want to post every one! But I won’t – yet! I’m sure they will make their way into future musings – how could they not. 

In the event you plan on being in the Southern California area, do yourself a favor – make a reservation at to spend a morning or an afternoon in this very special place. I used the work ‘magical’ earlier – and I mean it … magic has been made here, and it lingers. You can feel the fairy dust. Walk around, enjoy the surroundings, and some of that special pixie stuff will fall on you.


me, happyme, happy

… and you will fall in love.

I guarantee it!

22 Responses to “An Ode to the Land of the Lotus”

  1. I lived in Santa Barbara for 7 years and never even knew Lotusland existed (typical college student, I’m not sure I even knew gardens in general existed). Now everytime we go to SB, it is spur of the moment and I think you have to make reservations well in advance. Any tips on jumping the queue?

    Great photos, BTW!

  2. I’m speechless Germi! Your photos are by far the best I’ve seen of this amazing place and you have cemented my desire to be there. I always suspected it was this beautiful but most of the photos only manage to hint at the magic. Thank you! I look forward to seeing future pictures AND seeing your ideas and the Lotusland inspiration take form on the island. You do look happy!

  3. Hi Susan! Yes, I was like that, too in college – a garden was that area I walked through to get to a party. Unless the keg was IN the garden, in which case I stepped on plants to play bartender. I shudder at the memory!
    You know, there IS a way to ‘jump the line’ but you still have to plan a few days ahead and donate some cash. I have never in my life been able to plan more that 4 or 5 days in the future – so I couldn’t do the whole 3-6 month wait. AND I also didn’t want to do a tour with a docent … I know the story, I know the plants – I just want to be in the space! So I became a member of the Lotusland foundation, which entitled me to do self-guided tours. And I told them I was a designer and working on a project and Lotusland was a major point of departure – so I actually got me and my Minion (he’s much more than an assistant) in with just a 2-day wait!
    But the first time we tried to go, Santa Barbara was on fire … so I had to wait anyway. Whattaya do?
    The volunteers are very nice, and will bend over backwards to help designers. I think you are in like … Flynt? Or is it Flynn? Oh, whatever it is, I think you’re in!
    Hope my inside scoop helps, because you will LOVE love love it!

    Oh, Loree! I was totally thinking about you while I was in the Aloe Garden – and I didn’t even post the pictures of the huge Agaves in the Blue Garden! This place will be your Mecca. It delights and inspires with every peak around the bend. I came home and immediately started re-designing my gardens – I want more EVERYTHING! So be prepared – remember that U-Haul you were joking about needing for your plant purchases after your visit? It’s no joke, baby!
    I’m SO thrilled you love the images – I was worried the feeling wouldn’t translate.
    I can’t wait for YOUR Lotusland post! Yeah!

  4. Wow! Great post. And GREAT pics. I knew about it, but not until seeing your pics did I feel the need to go. I’m putting Lotusland on my list!

  5. Fabulous photos.

  6. I also totally recommend the membership and ditching the docent. He didn’t have much to add. The tour moves much too fast if you are someone who actually gardens and knows plants and will need more than a minute or two to absorb the surroundings. I was mentally and physically exhausted afterward.

    We took a lot of the same pictures, no surprise! ;)

  7. Germi! 3-6 month wait!?? What ??? Okay so we’ll be on vacation and planning a head but not that far ahead!!! Really? I need to make reservations 3-6 months in advance of our visit? That’s like now. Who thinks like that!?

  8. OMG- I would love to view this place with you instead of a docent. Most often they lack in excitement and passion and frankly make the place boring! I love seeing this place through your eyes. Can’t wait to see what you come up with in Yucatan. I know you’re going to hate me because I once tore out a 350 pound agave from my front yard, if only I had known you then I’m sure you could have found it a better home! It just didn’t go with the rest of our yard and kept attacking people that walked by our property. Dont hate me! :(

  9. Barbara W., thanks so much for the sweet comment! I am so pleased that these pics would spur you on to this amazing destination – really, I feel like I’m overusing the words ‘amazing’ and ‘incredible’ and ‘wonderful’ … I have to come up with more superlatives!

    Thanks to you, too, Kerry … I’m not much of a photographer, but I must admit to being very pleased with these shots. I’m glad you enjoyed them!

    Chuck B.! My friend in Buffy fandom! (Did I scare you with my Buffy craziness that one night on Twitter? I go a little mad sometimes… )
    I LOVE your incredibly comprehensive photos of all the beauty! We have very similar eyes, don’t we? And your posts were right on. Let’s write a book together!
    I was super lucky that the day we went was grey and overcast until around 2pm. The light was just so even, without too much contrast. I did the early tour so that we could get lunch at La Superica (a must if you are in the area) before heading back to LA … and having done both morning and afternoons, I like the morning better. But that could just be me – it is always stunning.
    I’m glad you concur about the self-guided thing. I tend to be the type that creates drama in groups, so it’s best for me to segregate myself!
    Thank you for the links to your Lotusland posts! Great minds…

    Loree, don’t worry. I was just being dramatic. Kind of. I know – who thinks like that! Certainly not me! But kindly volunteers think like that, so reserve as soon as you know when you’ll be coming down! the ladies there are super nice, so I’m sure they’ll get you in. Just be sure they know how far you’ve come from and how you have been looking forward to seeing Lotusland since you were born!

    Hey Carri! How could I EVER hate you? I understand … because … just between you and me (Loree, Megan, and Pam – cover your ears) I once tore out two big striped agaves from a client’s yard when I first started out because I had no idea how to garden with/around them. I couldn’t see their beauty yet! So we BOTH have agave blood on our hands – but it makes us the gardeners we are today!
    Lotusland is sensational, isn’t it? I would docent you ANY day, baby!

  10. Deanna Hatch says:

    What a great posting and such nice photos!

    I’m writing from Lotusland to clear up a myth. When we were only allowed 5,000 visitors, it did take a long time to get a reservation, but now that our Conditional Use Permit allows 15,000 visitors a year, it is very easy to get a reservation with very short notice. Call 805-969-9990. Tours are offered at 10 AM and 1:30 PM, Wednesday through Saturday from mid-February to mid-November. Members are able to visit on a self-guided tour and you can join when you call or go to our website at

  11. i went to lotusland for the first time last year and was blown away. i did the docent tour, which was OK, but am looking forward to going again and wandering around as i please. i especially liked the theatre garden…

  12. Deanna Hatch! You are SUCH a wonder for commenting on this – EVERYBODY wants to go to this incredible place! And, on another note – thank you for being so helpful during my visit.

    How great that more people now have access to Lotusland – what many people don’t realize is that it is smack in the middle of a very peaceful, residential neighborhood (there is a school right across the street), and the foundation takes pains to make sure that activities at Lotusland don’t disturb that neighborhood feeling. It also makes sense to me to restrict access somewhat – you can tour the gardens and feel absolutely alone, which is impossible in other places like this. But there IS no other place like this!
    Thank you, Deanna, and I am so happy you liked the post and photos. That is high praise, since you know the place so well!

    … Oh, and I hope the docents don’t take offense! They are super friendly and obviously LOVE the place! We are just a group of plant maniacs, and we take MUCH longer than many others when it comes to looking at gardens!

    Hey Chanchow! So you’ve been! Yes, you MUST go and take your time … I learn so much every time I go, just by letting it all wash over me. Aren’t the statues in the Amphitheatre out of control? I couldn’t take pics of everything (next time I’m taking an extra battery for my camera!), but I did manage a pic of the man with the walking sticks … my favorite ghouly garden statuary!

  13. That is an amazing garden! Ganna Walska couldn’t have been someone who does things in half measures…I guess 5 husbands also says something about that.

  14. Hi Ivette.

    Amazing place. Last night I had these pictures up on my laptop for ages…tv…slurp of wine….more picture studying…tv etc etc…(repeat until the early hours). They are quite remarkable. That second image is just completely out of control! In fact, I got so engrossed in the pictures I forgot to comment!

    I cannot wait to visit this place one day. I also would never have guessed that it was in a residential neighborhood. It looks like it is carved out of a jungle! Stunning.

    Thanks for sharing this with us.

    And what is this online rumour I hear about you tearing out agave plants? variegated ones at that! You should be ashamed of yourself!
    Last time I am coming here!…OJ

    Try and keep me away!

  15. Jean Prescott says:

    Germi!! It is so-o-o good to have you back!! I left the Domino bookmark up until I realized that it was like keeping an old boyfriend’s number in your phone long after the thrill was gone. You look wonderful, and as usual, your posts are breathtaking. Happy blogging. I am bookmarking The Germinatrix now.

  16. Oh, the tragedy of the variegated agaves! But I understand. Everyone must come to appreciate agaves in their own time. I didn’t start out loving them either. Then again, I never saw one in small-town South Carolina, where I grew up.

    Lotusland has been on my must-see list since Chuck B. introduced me to it with the post he linked to in his comment. And then I saw more of it in Wildflower Magazine. I MUST get there one day. How cool that Deanna commented to let us all know how to get a tour. And I am so glad that Lotusland survived the recent fires.

    Just wondering–are most of the gardens at Lotusland organized by plant species?

  17. lotus land love.

    i went there first with my old landscape architecture firm 5 years ago and was totally smitten. i imagined going to parties at old ganna’s and chatting it up about the latest addition to the yards (actually i think i imagine going to parties at all the gardens i design too). anyways the slate mulch, the turquoise glass edging, abalone shells galore… swoon! what a gift she left us all. thanks for taking me back there through your pics!

  18. I’ve had a wonderful informative docent as well as a docent who was obviously dedicated to his job but really didn’t bring the history of the garden to life like my first docent nor was he that informed about the plants.
    It’s a 50/50 shot , but worth it if you get a great docent because no matter how many times you visit this garden there is always more to discover.

    I love this garden and Ivette, you did it justice in your photography.
    I could see more photos too !
    Very very enjoyable tour.

  19. ESP! You MUST MUST MUST visit Lotusland – and bring the tribe! They will find much to delight and amaze them … but the negotiations between nations must start now! They ARE visiting foreign dignitaries, of course, and should be treated as such. I humbly submit myself as ambassador.

    I am already anticipating an ESP post about Lotusland! It will have to be epic, of course. Seeing it through your eyes will be a huge blast! It HAS to happen!
    I’m glad you liked the pictures! You and Pam are my photo muses – I was trying to channel you guys so that I could do the place justice.
    And OH! My Agave murder – I thought I could just slip it in there, but no – what is on the web DOES follow you. It is true. But I hope my current unabashed, full-throttle love for these amazing plants helps balance things out. I will do more penance … every garden I make will contain agaves! (well, they already do – but you know what I mean!)
    Deep in the heart of Texas,

    Expat! My pal from the old blogging days! I’m so glad you found me – I am LOVING being out on my own – it feels just right! Please keep coming back, and drop a comment whenever the mood strikes you! Hearing from y’all is the BEST part of this endeavor! And thanks for the sweet words – I am feeling great, too!

    Pam! Fresh from The Fling – and what photos! WHEW!
    Arrrghhh! I told you to close your eyes and NOT read about the Agave debacle! But well, it is good that you know me fully, and you see how far I’ve come. Now, I’d rather do anything than trash an agave (yikes! It even hurts to SAY it!)
    Chuck B’s posts on Lotusland are wonderful, aren’t they? So comprehensive – that’s him! You know – here’s a great book idea … Lotusland, seen through the eyes of different Garden Bloggers. Here is my Prelim List:
    Jenny (Rock Rose)
    Pretty good gang, I think!

    And Lotusland is arranged into gardens that follow a strict theme – often by species, like the Cycad and Aloe gardens, or color as in the Blue garden – but then she goes crazy and throws in a Theatre garden and a butterfly garden! That’s what I love – unpredictable, a bit off-kilter, but totally unique and moving.

    Hi Vanessa! I am so happy to remind people of their visits to this remarkable garden. I remember, too, when I first saw those huge chunks of slag glass – it blew my mind! Jewelry for the garden! Oh, and the slate mulch … I ADORE that! You are so right, Lotusland is a gift – plant lovers everywhere should flock to it and enjoy the magic!

    Hi Michelle D! How have you been? I’ll have you know – wood fires were burned at my house the entire winter! Thanks for raising my awareness of the issue.
    I hear you about the docents – the ones at Lotusland are so sweet, and have an obvious love for the place. And you are so right – there is always more to discover … but for me, the wandering and the looking and swimming in the beauty beats the tour. But then again – I took the tour the first time I went! It WAS informative!
    It is high praise when someone who loves the garden gives me a high five! Thank you so much for that, Michelle! I will definitely oblige with more pics …

  20. Beautiful!

    I am now even more excited to see Ganna Walska’s Lotusland, this coming Oct. while attending the Pacific Horticulture Symposium Gardening Under Mediterranean Skies VII. They have a private luncheon and a docent-led tour of this extradorinary and passionate garden planned.

    Thank you for posting! :)


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