“I think California is the best country in the world and always will be no matter who comes into it or what is done to it,” wrote publisher and impassioned builder William Randolph Hearst in 1906. “Nobody or no thing can shut out the beautiful sun or alter the glorious climate. Hurrah for dear old California.”
A native son, Hearst understood firsthand how hospitable the region’s climate could be to the whims of the imagination. California’s gardens were meant to be lived in. And nowhere was this philosophy more ingeniously applied than 150 miles south of Hearst’s beloved San Simeon at Lotusland, a lush 37-acre estate as renowned for its botanical rarities as for its flamboyant doyenne of four decades, Madame Ganna Walska, who was, in her obsessive pursuit of the ideal, every bit a kindred spirit of America’s charismatic publisher.
A one-time opera singer and serial bride, Madame Walska abhorred the conventional—a sentiment that would lend to her career as many idiosyncratic twists and bends as could be found among even the strangest of her exotic garden specimens. Born in Poland in 1887, she materialized at the Imperial Court at St. Petersburg, where she married her first husband, a Russian count. The annulment of that marriage eight years later launched a series of tempestuous, though profitable, unions, with each successive husband wealthier than the last—except, that is, for the sixth and last, Theos Bernard, a penniless spiritual guru whose penchant for Eastern mysticism prompted Madame to purchase the Montecito estate with the notion of establishing a retreat for Tibetan monks. The advent of World War II, and the abrupt banishment of Bernard, preempted this plan, but Walska had in Lotusland (so named for the numerous specimens that grace the property’s pools) a natural stage on which to give her theatrical instincts—as well as her taste for the bizarre—full play.
Madame Walska was not the first resident to exploit the estate’s horticultural potential. The original owner, Ralph Kinton Stevens, established a lemon and palm nursery there in 1882, but soon became interested in cultivating subtropical plants, including bamboo, South African silver trees, and Indian lotus flowers. Many of the elements present today—dragon trees, Chilean wine palms, and aloe—were also planted by Stevens or descended from his collection. Inspired by this legacy, Walska envisioned an enfilade of distinctive open-air “rooms” that would come to encompass much of Lotusland’s acreage. The house—a villa designed in 1919 by distinguished Pasadena, Calif., architect Reginald Johnson—interested her little; its rooms served mainly to display her assemblage of Far Eastern antiques and artworks. She lived instead in the adjoining pavilion designed by George Washington Smith—or, more correctly, she slept there, for it was in the gardens that she lived, worked, and entertained.
Like her persona, Walska’s gardens were larger than life. Scale and form are the dominant elements, rather than color. Mass plantings abound, and many of the species were chosen for their sculptural qualities. The entry court, for example, winds around the dracaena circle, an island of spiked dragon trees bristling like bouquets of silvery knives, across from which the Andalusian-style facade of the residence looms behind massive curtains of draping Euphorbia ingens. Battalions of the latter line one side of the gravel drive; on the other, rival legions of various cacti assemble, their flowers, in season, bursting flames of yellow, burnt orange, and scarlet. Agaves grouped in heavily piled blue-gray embankments gather at the main gate, their heads like enormous thorny cabbages. Designed in collaboration with renowned landscape architect Lockwood de Forest, the effect of this progression is of a botanical military review, the fantastic and sometimes menacing shapes intended to astonish and impress.
Off the drive can be found more restful garden rooms. The first is the Japanese garden. Here, the mood is contemplative. A torii gate frames the scene, where a profusion of weeping willows creates a verdant mist into which the background seems to dissolve, leaving only the occasional pagoda, clusters of lily pads, and the distant mountains reflected in the koi-filled pond.
Opposite the Japanese garden are two of Lotusland’s most unusual settings, the cycad and blue gardens. The first, designed by botanist Charles Glass in the mid-1970s, furnishes a glimpse into a primordial world. Wal-ska began collecting cycads, one of the world’s oldest known species, in the 1950s, and her collection, which includes more than 200 different varieties, is regarded as one of the finest in existence. Three of these palmlike effusions are Encephalartos woodii, long thought to have been extinct until a single example was discovered in Africa in 1902—the antecedent of all specimens known today.
Moonlight, it is said, was the inspiration for the blue garden, which Walska filled with silver surfaces to catch the moon’s rays. Large chunks of blue slag glass line paths bordered by snaking gray succulents and glimmering Mexican fan palms. Whether in the lush daylight shade of Atlas cedars or at night, the blue garden evokes a quiet underwater ambience that exemplifies Walska’s talent for combining raw materials into a highly idiosyncratic mise-en-scène.
The myriad garden paths converge at Lotusland’s most formal section, the manicured lawn at the heart of the estate, where, shaded by ancient oaks and 100-year-old Monterey cypresses, Madame Walska presided over her many garden parties. The social function of this central garden is evident in several of its key features, particularly the two Italianate terraces—one an intricate mosaic, the other a brick-paved parterre encompassing the rose garden and high-
lighted by an elaborately tiled Moorish fountain. Beyond these, a topiary garden encloses Walska’s mechanical clock, the face of which is composed of variegated flower beds depicting one of the 12 signs of the zodiac at each of the hours. The theater garden consists of a tiered semicircle of retaining walls that creates a small lawn-covered amphitheater peopled by stone grotesques inspired by a series of engravings by 17th-century French artist Jacques Callot.
In cultivating her gardens, Walska placed great emphasis on details, and would incur tremendous expense in obtaining a certain boulder or even a certain plant. Local lore maintains that she sold priceless jewels to acquire rare specimens and would instruct her chauffeur to approach neighbors to negotiate the sale of a plant that caught her eye. Still, the perfection of the whole—and preserving it—remained her primary motivation. In 1958 she formed the Ganna Walska Lotusland Foundation for the purpose of safeguarding what she had and what she was yet to build. Despite the failure of her marriage to the self-proclaimed yogi, she retained her own spiritual sense, a desire to discover in life’s subtleties its connections to the infinite. Through her masterfully rendered suites of outdoor rooms, she continues long after her death in 1984 to not only entertain and delight her guests with the fruits of California’s remarkable climate, but captures in their intricacies and contrasts the mysterious architecture of the natural world—and hints of that which lies beyond it.