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Simply Surreal

At Lotusland, a flourishing cactus garden is eerily, beautifully weird

April 16, 2006|Ann Herold | Ann Herold is West's managing editor.

All of Lotusland--the private-now-public garden in Montecito that was the personal canvas of longtime owner Ganna Walska--is a gallery of artistic statements, and now Salvador Dali has his corner.

The surreal look of 300 varieties of cactus rising from a sea of slate in this undulating acre prompted landscape designer Eric Nagelmann to pronounce his finished work Dali in the Desert. Certainly the languid arms of the Cleistocactus are making like snakes around the basalt boulders, and that rare Galapagos Opuntia is secretly fanning itself behind the Echinopsis tulhuayacensis from Peru, which, like a chameleon, is shaping itself into something resembling Gaudi's spire-encrusted cathedral in Barcelona. "It's interpretive, like a contemporary painting," Nagelmann says of the garden. "You see what you want."

Three years ago Nagelmann was envisioning how the site of a former tennis court could become the permanent home of the seven-decades-in-the-making collection of amateur horticulturist Merritt Dunlap, who had been a friend of Madame Walska. Nagelmann prowled through a local stone company, his logical mind saying a mocha-colored gravel would make the ideal ground cover, but his inner Dali finding the blue-gray slate perfectly, beautifully weird. At Santa Barbara Stone he also found the basalt columns that are repeated throughout the garden. They are similar to the naturally formed volcanic hulks at Devils Postpile near Mammoth, and the look is eerily Stonehenge. Pair them with cactus and the effect of sculpture meeting sculpture is undeniable.

"The thing about cactus is people tend to say, 'Eeeeew,' " Nagelmann notes. "That's because typically they're used so poorly." He bends down to cup a remarkable red flower; the cactus, as much as they can be so, are in full bloom. "If some proper lady saw this flower without this plant, she would consider it just as pretty as any water lily."

After the drainage issue was solved (French drains underground), the wheelchair ramp to the observation platform added (a path that blends in with the others winding through the garden) and the basalt columns and boulders dropped in place (by crane, with giant thuds that could be felt a football field away in the main house), Nagelmann had his blank slate. Now, more than two years after completion, he's marveling at the growth. Watching cactus grow? Sounds surreal. Nagelmann is ecstatic as he watches the light soften in the late afternoon and the colors pop out, "like a Christmas tree." He hugs one of the basalt columns. It's the only thing you can hug here.

Lotusland is open to the public by reservation only. Call (805) 969-9990 between 9 a.m. and noon Monday through Friday. Admission: $20; for children under 10, $10.

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