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A diva who loved high drama

Polish opera singer Ganna Walska painted with plants at her Montecito estate. More than a half-century after she began, it's easy to see that she didn't really retire from the stage -- she brought it with her.

March 10, 2005|Ariel Swartley | Special to The Times

Montecito — For garden lovers, the world is not always a better place when a woman gets what she wants. If the French Empress Josephine had been able to keep Napoleon from divorcing her, she might have had less time for the roses that are her enduring legacy at Malmaison.

Similarly, if Ganna Walska had achieved her ambition of becoming a celebrated opera singer -- or if her sixth marriage had worked out -- Lotusland, the Montecito estate she purchased in 1941, might be just another mansion.

Instead, two decades after the Polish soprano's death in 1984, her garden remains the horticultural wonderland she envisioned in the years she was single-mindedly ordering workmen to lever giant boulders into half a dozen new positions and selling her jewels to finance one more shipment of rare plants.

A performer to the core, Walska, born Hanna Puacz in 1887, always intended her work to be admired, stipulating in her will that Lotusland's grounds be open to visitors. (Tours, for which reservations are required, are offered from mid-February to mid-November.) Once inside the estate's pink walls, it doesn't take a visitor long to realize that the diva didn't so much retire from the stage as bring it with her.

Set against a backdrop of rugged mountains, Walska's 37 acres are divided into more than a dozen gardens, each a seemingly separate world.

One is an oak grove highlighted by the hot pinks and vibrant purples of hundreds of bromeliads, floral relatives of the pineapple. Another surrounds the visitor with water plants -- including the estate's namesake lotus -- in dreamy, nested pools.

Scenes change with the suddenness of a curtain rising: A classic Japanese landscape melts into the Australian Outback, while a drive flanked by bunched pillars of Chilean wine palms opens to a golden "lawn" -- actually a mass planting of barrel cactus. There is even a theater garden whose grassy stage can be viewed from a private box cut into the surrounding hedge.

Evidence of Walska's art is everywhere -- in surprising juxtapositions of form and playful shocks to our expectations. Spiky-leaved dragon trees and towering cactus-like euphorbia stand guard at the entrance of the estate's Spanish-style house, like an armored regiment from an alien planet.

There is evidence, too, of a keen botanical passion. The dragon trees (Dracaena draco), slow-growing natives of the Canary Islands, need temperate coastal conditions to thrive outdoors in California. Some of Lotusland's specimens -- which at 15 feet high look like giant versions of familiar potted succulents -- date to the estate's 19th century owner, Kinton Stevens, a rare-plant aficionado who used part of the grounds as a demonstration nursery.

Walska not only preserved these historic specimens but added to Stevens' collection and ordered them grouped in a dramatic circular grove directly opposite her front door.

Walska's imperiousness about what she wanted where was as legendary as her disinterest in the names of plants, and more than one of her many garden designers and advisors had reason to believe he was working for Lewis Carroll's Red Queen.

Certainly a visitor encountering the garden's living clock -- reported to be the world's largest when it was created in the 1950s -- may be forgiven for thinking she's fallen down a rabbit hole. Composed of succulents, and the diameter of a merry-go-round, it tells time to an audience of topiary bears and peacocks.

And then there's the forest that's planted exclusively in shades of blue (blue hesper palms and Atlas cedars underplanted with blue fescue).

But Lotusland's garden is not simply an eccentric fantasy, any more than "Alice in Wonderland" is just a children's book. For Walska, plants were more than plants; they were colors to paint with, a family to nurture, characters to direct.

You have only to walk among her aloes to understand. Densely packed on a series of knolls, the 100 or more varieties form galaxies of fleshy stars. The knolls allow good drainage, always important to a succulent, but the effect is something more. We are no longer an audience but a part of this crowd scene: The 2- and 3-foot-high flower spikes are flame-colored spears or an army of torches, and we're onstage with them.

In gardens, it seems, Walska found a trick that divas can only imagine: Her grandest performances are perpetually repeated. The aloe act culminates at a rise where a pair of larger and more gnarled specimens are standing. These, we soon realize, are fountains, not plants.

Made from the wavy shells of giant clams, they stand in a pool that's a Pacific fantasy, edged in abalone shells that reflect its pearly blue. The interplay of colors and the faintly grotesque beauty aren't all that takes our breath away. Anticipation does too. At any moment Venus should emerge, though what she'll look like in this strange new world is anybody's guess.

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