Eccentric Souls & Gardens: Madame Ganna Walska's Lotusland

If you would like to be temporarily transported out of the doldrums of winter, then let me introduce you to Lotusland. While I haven't been there in person, I became acquainted with this spectacular garden last year in the Martha Stewart Living March issue, and it has been on my list of gardens to visit ever since. Lotusland is 37 acres with 17 gardens, all nestled in California's swank Montecito. While the grounds are quite impressive, to truly understand the gardens, you should first become acquainted with the garden's creator, Madame Ganna Walska.

It would be hard to understand the vision for Lotusland without learning more about the eccentric Madame Ganna Walska. Madame Walska was a Polish socialite and aspiring opera singer. She was also quite a fascinating enigma to the men around her, and married six times over the course of her life. The dissolution of these marriages, often to extraordinarily wealthy men, is what left her with an astounding fortune. That fortune, along with her expensive collection of jewelry, is what helped fund Lotusland.

It was during her short-lived marriage to a yogi that she acquired the Montecito estate, after her much younger husband persuaded her to buy it. Walska purchased it in 1941 with plans to turn it into a retreat for Buddhist monks, and they named the property Tibetland. After the divorce, it was renamed Lotusland for the many lotus blooming in the ponds (legend has it that the first Asian lotus plant blooms every year on June 26th, Walska's birthday).

While Walska managed to turn the estate's property into arguably one of the world's most magnificent gardens and collections — boasting mature, exotic and rare plantings — it's especially interesting to learn that Walska was an entirely self-taught gardener. Granted, she did call on famous landscape designers and gardeners for advice, but she didn't care about what was popular or recreating what she had seen in someone else's garden. Walska's gardening style was unique for many reasons, but the two that set her apart from most others during that time was that she preferred form over color and she developed a unique style of mass-plantings (planting the same species together, layered in large numbers). She also amassed quite the collection of gardenalia, such as her amazing collection of 17th-century French statuettes, which can be seen in the Theater garden. (Rumor has it that these statues were hidden under manure at her estate in France during World War II, and shipped to the Lotusland property after the war was over.)

Walska dedicated much of her time and wealth to cultivating the garden, and she stayed with the gardens until she passed away at the age of 97 in 1984.

If you would like more information on Lotusland or to schedule a visit, you can find all the details on their website.

(Images: Lotusland)