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STYLE : GARDENS : Welcome to Lotusland : An Opera Singer's Flamboyant Santa Barbara Estate Opens to the Public

August 22, 1993|JUDITH SIMS

Ganna Walska was a Polish opera singer who never quite made it on stage, but she married profitably six times, collecting furs, art and jewels along the way. S he spent her declining years selling the jewels to buy exotic, unusual--some might say bizarre--plants for Lotusland, her 37-acre estate in the Montecito section of Santa Barbara.

An underground secret for years that was revealed only occasionally in gardening magazines, this remarkable landscape will open to the public next month after years of negotiations with its neighbors.

Like Madame Walska herself, her garden is flamboyant and passionate, a botanical collection of operatic proportions. Walska liked the unusual, and she ordered plants with Carmen-like abandon to fill the spaces designed by several landscape architects over the years. Several Euphorbia ingens flow down the front of the pink stucco villa like Rapunzel's hair, curling around barrel cactus on the ground. More euphorbias and many varieties of cacti line the drive and rim a lawn. The most photographed area, besides the villa, is perhaps the other-worldly aloe garden, with its giant clamshell fountain, tufa rock "islands" from Mono Lake and a pond outlined with abalone shells. The combination of spiky plants, white pond and dark lava rock is eerie, uncomfortable, intriguing.

Blue-green slag from a local bottling plant edges many paths, most noticeably in the blue garden, where it echoes the blues of Atlas cedar, fescue and senecio. There is a theater garden attended by 17-Century stone gnomes and dwarfs; nearby, playful topiary figures dance around a huge zodiac sundial. The garden includes an olive allee , a citrus arbor and a Japanese-style garden with water lilies, crane statues and the namesake lotuses, which also anchor another pond. But the really special garden, and the last one to capture Walska's devotion, is the cycad section, full of plants that have survived virtually unchanged since dinosaur years. Lotusland has an amazing collection, including the rare Encephalartos woodii : three male plants in a species with no surviving females.

Lotusland is supported by the foundation Walska established before her death, at age 97, in 1984. In 1987, the foundation filed for a permit to open the garden to the public. Some neighbors expressed opposition to the idea of strangers invading their elite real estate, so for a few years, only botanical and horticultural groups were allowed in by strict appointment. The battle was finally resolved; Lotusland will by viewable by the public Sept. 15 through Nov. 15 and again next year from Feb. 15 through Nov. 15. Admission fees range from $10 for one person in one car to $5 for one person on a bicycle. But do not just drop in; the garden can accommodate only a limited number of vehicles and visitors, so call (805) 969-9990 for reservations.

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