Photo by Melody

Botanical Gardens of Note: Introduction to Lotusland, Santa Barbara, California

By Geoff Stein (palmbobJuly 12, 2009

Lotusland is one of the premiere botanical gardens in all of California, if not the U.S. However, because it requires reservations ahead of time, and is only open on certain days of the week during nine months of the year, many have never treated themselves the opportunity to explore this amazing botanical wonder. This article serves only as introduction, and will certainly not do the gardens justice.

Gardening picture

As far as I can tell, the original owner of the property now known as Lotusland was a well known nurseryman named Ralph Stevens, and he was the one who planted many of the really old, large palms back in late 1800s (yes, some of the palms are over 130 years old!).  Since then it has changed hands multiple times, over which time many of the impressive structures and the great wall surrounding the property were built.  Then, in 1941 the famous opera singer Madame Ganna Walska bought the estate.  It was during her ownership that the garden really developed, hoping it would eventually become an ‘outstanding center of horticultural significance and educational use' (her words).  Madame Walska was fairly well off and did not hesitate to buy all sorts of rare and difficult to find tropicals and succulents to fill the gardens.  Reportedly she was quite a personality, singing all over the world and getting married 6 times, then managing to collect one of the most impressive plant collections in all the world.  From that time until her death in 1984, she tirelessly collected, designed and landscaped the gardens (along with the help of a half dozen other well-known landscapers), sparing almost no expense to get the plants she wanted.  Supposedly she even sold her jewelry to get the plants for the last section she developed, the cycads (thank goodness  for her!!) 

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Very old Dragon Tree (Dracaena draco) and row of massive Jubaeas were part of the orginal plantings near the turn of the century

One of my favorite palm people, Pauleen Sullivan, a leader in her own field of palm collecting and growing in California, was approached by Madame Walska in the late 1970s, offering to buy many of Pauleen's favorite palms for Lotusland.  Pauleen refused, of course (another stubborn plant personality), sending Madame Walska off in disbelief, as she had offered Pauleen a substantial amount of money.  For more on Pauleen's own gardens, see my article here


I think it was a Cyrtostachys Pauleen had in her indoor pool area that Madama Waslka wanted so much?

Ever since her passing, the garden has been extremely well maintained as the Foundation takes a lot of pride in the upkeep of this botanical jewel nestled in a very upscale neighborhood in the middle of the Santa Barbara mountains.  There is a serious full and part time staff and many volunteers taking care of the grounds year round despite the place only being open to the public three fourths of the year, 4 days a week.

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Part of one the original structures, this building makes a great backdrop to one of the most amazing Euphorbia ingens there are (a drooping monstrose form);  photo in the middle is of the Aloe garden along side one of Madame Walska's pools lined with abalone shells cemented into place;  photo on right show one of her quirky landscape ideas with all the giant clam shells sitting on a 'beach' near one of the pools.

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Three more shots showing plants and shells surrounding some of the oringal buildings and pools in Lotusland (Cephalocereus in photo on left and Oreocereus in right hand photo).

I have been fortunate enough to have visited the garden several times with volunteers who have helped in the cycad and palm gardens, my favorite areas (of course).  But in addition to these fantastic collections, they have a fern garden, an incredible, old and well-known cactus and succulent collection lining the main drive through the gardens, and, of course, a Lotus pond and water garden.  Additionally they have a ‘Blue Garden' in which all the plant members are some shade of blue (including palms, cycads and many succulents).  They have a nice aloe garden (another of my favorite spots) a large Bromeliad collection and a whimsical topiary garden.  More recently they have a new cactus garden feature a lot of Galapagos natives, and they have completely re-done the palm garden, incorporating a large number of new palms donated over the last 10 or so years.  There is also a nice bamboo collection, an excellent variety of conifers and Japanese maples, and extensive, well manicured lawns.  And of course they have plenty of flowers and fruits to keep the lovers of those sorts of plants happy as well.  The collection is so well known that several plant cultivars have even been officially named Lotusland.

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photo on left is view of the cycad garden;  middle photo show the impressive and extremely rare Encephalartos woodii cycads hanging over a pond;  right photo is of another rare and exceptionally large Encephalartos paucidentatus.

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Just a few of the hundreds of species of palms in Lotusland:  Rhopalostylis sapida (left), Jubaeaopsis caffra (middle), and Jubaea chilensis (right)

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Three species of mature tree ferns in Lotusland: Dicksonia squarosa; Cyathea cooperi 'Brentwood'; and Cibotium glaucum

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Dragon trees crammed into too small area are some of the more impressive succulents in the Lotusland collection; One of the largest collection of Espostoa senilis is in this garden (middle photo); beautiful medusoid plant, Euphorbia esculenta, bloominig

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more impressive succulents:  forest of Beaucarnea recurvatas (left); amazing collection of Agave franzosiniis (middle) and shot of one of the Aloe gardens (right)

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huge collections of cacti in the old succulent garden section: Parodia magnificas (left); Parodia lenninghaussiis (middle); and huge stand of Neobuxbamia polylophas (right)

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Aloe shots: Aloe plicatilis (left); exceptionally large, old Aloe pluridens (middle) and another shot of the aloe garden (right)

Image Image Echinocacti grusoniis (Golden Barrels) and more Dragon Trees

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three shots of the new cactus garden with rare species such as Pilosocereus purpusii (left); Armatocereus mataranus (middle) and Oputnia echios from the Galapagos (right)

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Two shots of the famous lotus pond and one of the grassy expanses separating some of the theme gardens

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Shot of the blue garden with Blue Fescue, Brahea armatas and Butias;  this particularly blue Jubaea chilensis is at the edge of the blue garden (middle) and this row of Agave franzosiniis border another side of the blue garden

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                                                                    two shots of the bromeliad garden, and Begonia 'Lotusland' in right photo

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huge Cypress macrocarpa (Monterey Cypress) in left photo;  one of several huge, tall Bunya Bunya trees (Aracuaria bidwillii) in middle photo;  right shows a young Monkey Puzzle Tree (Araucaria aracana)- Santa Barbara has one of the unique mild climates in southern California where one can actually grow this highly ornamental tree

Though one does need a reservation, the place is definitely worth seeing if you are in the area.  And of course, while in the area, you should drive around the local neighborhoods of Santa Barbara, many themselves could be included as miniature botanical masterpieces as well (Santa Barbara has an excellent growing climate.)  Their local zoo and courthouse have excellent public displays of rare and tropical plants as well.  The only downsides of Santa Barbara is few can afford to live there anymore, and the frequent forest fires that have a tendency to zip through the nicest areas, burning both houses and gardens. 

For more on Lotusland, visit their website.

  About Geoff Stein  
Geoff SteinVeterinarian and Exotic Plant Lover... and obsessive, compulsive collector of all oddball tropical and desert plants.

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