For my birthday this year, my mother and sister took me to Lotusland.
It’s been on my radar for a long time, so – as is sometimes the case – the actual visit was a little surreal. This is a garden that photographs beautifully and features a lot of plants that are evergreen, so I expected more, well, lushness. But then I kindly reminded myself that I was there to experience, not quash the fun of the place with my prejudices, and also, Ms. Juliane, please remember that arid California is arid California, even when it’s near mildish Santa Barbara.
Finally allowing myself to be drawn into the idiosyncratic beauty of the garden, I listened to the docent unpack the personal history of its creator, Ganna Walska: an opera singer who made elegant transatlantic crossings, collecting husbands and their fortunes. What else is new? But what could be more decadent? Where are today’s oft-married opera singers?
She was an eccentric, hauling slag glass from the Arrowhead factory to line thousands of feet of dirt paths, refusing to sleep in the main house, devoting a room to a favorite cockatiel. A pool is rimmed with hundreds of abalone shells (gorgeous? tacky?), and one garden is blue, truly. She peopled her theatre garden with 2-foot high 17th century “grotesques,” statues which weathered World War II underground in their French homeland. Whenever she drove by a home with a particularly attractive specimen (or one she thought would have a happier spot in one of her “mass plantings”), she’d stop and convince the homeowner to let her send her trucks over.
I love hearing about wacky artists, and Lotusland’s tour did not disappoint. Dame Walska managed to parlay her beauty and fair weather talent into a fantastic place. Like other great gardens, it’s a place to think and to be.
But the story which touched me most was about the cactus garden, completed well after her death. She had met a kindred spirit in Merritt Dunlap, who spent 70 years cultivating cacti, 40 percent of them from seed. They bonded over their garden “hobbies,” and Walska gave Dunlap a great gift. She offered his cacti a home after his death. So:
More than 500 plants were transported from Dunlap’s home in Fallbrook, California, nearly 200 miles from Lotusland. Over thirty of the largest specimens had to be dug up with a backhoe, boxed, and had frames installed on individual branches for the trip on flatbed trucks.
according to Lotusland’s site. I don’t love cacti, but this garden was extraordinary: extraterrestrial and very, very Walska.
It must have given Mr. Dunlap great comfort to know his spiny legacy was in Lotusland’s hand. He died shortly after the cactus garden opened in 2004.