Revisit the Serene Gardens of Lotusland, Where 3,400 Plants Are Still Thriving 80 Years Later

Few landscaping endeavors contain the passion and careful preservation of Lotusland, the 37-acre Montecito estate purchased by Madame Ganna Walska in 1941. A well-known Polish opera singer and socialite, Walska developed an obsession with plants from all corners of the world and used her eccentric design sensibility to arrange them. She embraced the region’s exceptional microclimate, accommodating desert-loving cacti, humidity-loving ferns, water-loving lotus flowers, and so much in between. After she passed in 1984, Walska left the estate to a foundation that began sharing it with the public six years later: all 20 gardens comprising 3,400 plants and more than 35,000 specimens.

Initially featured in an issue of AD in 1974, Lotusland has been archived recently in a new Rizzoli book photographed by Lisa Romerein. She first captured the estate for a magazine spread about Santa Barbara, but back then, she only had one day to shoot it. So, she jumped at the opportunity to reexamine Lotusland’s rare plants and ethereal atmosphere, from dawn until dusk, including the gardens’ impressive growth and expanding relevance. In the urgent context of climate change, Lotusland’s beauty is also a testament to its pioneering sustainable horticultural practices.

Lotusland highlights the immense diversity that exists within these gardens while raising awareness of the need to protect this fragile resource at every opportunity,” explains Paul Mills, the director of conservation and curator of the living collection, who guided Lisa throughout the book shoots. “Botanic gardens like Lotusland have always played an important role in the conservation of plants, the vital group of organisms that are crucial for our existence and that of the planet.”

Madame Walska’s focus on sustainability aligned with her spiritual interests in yoga, astrology, and meditation. She studied subjects like telepathy, numerology, and hypnotism and originally named her property Tibetland, hoping it would be a retreat for Tibetan lamas before World War II started. She was a woman creating on her own terms, bringing the transcendence of the natural world together in a unique setting. Below, Lisa talks about the process of capturing Lotusland and appreciating Walska’s legacy decades later.

The Lemon Arbor within Lotusland’s orchards, which Walska continually added to.

Photo: Lisa Romerein

How did this book project differ from others you’ve done in the past?

The nice thing about this project was that it happened all in one place, in one garden. It was very immersive. We shot the gardens for about a year during every season. Even though Lotusland is not as much of a seasonal garden, thanks to its succulents and evergreens, there are still several things that happen in the garden at specific times. For example, the Aloe Garden is in full bloom in the winter, when the garden is actually closed to visitors.

What was your overall process for capturing all 20 gardens and their 3,400 plants?

We made a game plan for each season, but the gardens also spoke to us. There were surprises that we captured right away. That was the magic of it. We’d shoot in two-day increments, arriving before dawn and leaving late in the evening. It was a unique experience because most visitors don’t get to see the garden at those hours.

The book has some unexpected yet stunning black-and-white film photos that show the golden barrels cacti, macrozamia cycad, the Bromeliad Garden, the Dunlap Cactus Garden, and the Topiary Garden. Why did you want to show the gardens from this perspective?

The garden has this incredible timelessness, which you see in the archival photos of Madame Ganna Walska. When you’re there, you feel unattached to time and space. It’s disorienting in a really fantastic way. The black-and-white 665 film I used went out of circulation 20 years ago. I pull it out for special occasions like this. I wanted people to think, “Are these archival photos or modern photos?” I used a mix of imagery to make the viewer feel like they’re breathing in and out with the garden.

The Mediterranean-style Office-Main House at Lotusland, by architect Reginald Johnson.
The Mediterranean-style Office-Main House at Lotusland, by architect Reginald Johnson.

Photo: Lisa Romerein

You also took some aerial photos of the Water and Topiary Gardens. Why did you want to show these from above?

Initially, I didn’t think I would take drone shots because gardens are often about being in them. The more we walked around, the more I noticed Lotusland’s very intentional architecture. The geometry of the Water Garden is absolutely stunning; the Topiary Garden is very organized. Seeing them from above helps viewers feel them in a singular way.

How did you decide on the details you captured, from the egret to the celestial globe and the zodiac sign clock?

Those details speak to Madame Ganna Walska’s passion and eccentricity, as well as how much she loved Lotusland. She had a sense of humor and also an obsession with the gardens. She spent all of her money on the plants; it didn’t matter if they were rare, or if she just thought they were beautiful.

It seems like there are an endless amount of “fun facts” related to Lotusland. Did you learn anything particularly special to you about Ganna Walska’s choices for the gardens?

As for her vision, Madame Walska wasn’t necessarily a horticulturalist. Her approach came from an emotional relationship with the plants. She was a passionate admirer of certain species. And when she loved something, she didn’t want just one: She wanted a sea of it. You don’t often see gardens like Lotusland. For example, the Blue Garden—who does a garden just based on a color? I was fascinated by it and how she lined the paths with recycled blue glass. While not a traditional landscaping choice, it’s magical when you see the light hit them and sparkle. Then, there are the giant clam shells by the pool. You see these details and know you’re in a place like no other.

A charming pathway to the Rose Garden at Lotusland.

A charming pathway to the Rose Garden at Lotusland.

Photo: Lisa Romerein

The book does an excellent job of emphasizing Ganna Walska’s spiritual nature and intentions behind Lotusland. It quotes her saying, “Living on this planet is not a reality but merely a passing moment in time and space allotted us for growth.” Did you want her spirituality to be felt in the photographs?

Absolutely. You can’t help but think about her spirituality when you’re walking through the gardens. I felt a responsibility to honor what she had created. My assistant and I constantly felt like we were in another world. Every time we left, we’d have to reacclimatize. I only wish that we had been able to capture a foggier morning, but we never got one. That would have helped capture the otherworldly feeling too.

The book also has a fair number of historical photos of Ganna Walska with the plants, and I’m sure you saw more in the archives. Did those photos, or the way you imagined her spending time at Lotusland, influence your shoots?

There were definitely some that I wanted to reference. There’s one classic photo, where she’s standing outside of the main house. Today, you can really see the maturation of the plants there. It’s almost unrecognizable when compared to the original photo of her. I love all of the pictures of her throughout the gardens, especially the ones of her in the lemon orchard picking lemons.

The Water Garden at Lotusland, which Walska converted from a swimming pool into a pond.
The Water Garden at Lotusland, which Walska converted from a swimming pool into a pond.

Photo: Lisa Romerein

Lotusland is also known for its rare plants, especially in the Cycad Garden, where you took some gorgeous photos. Did you take a different approach to the rare plants?

I definitely did. That was one of my objectives every season. We paid attention to any that were blooming at specific times, including the Queen of the Night cactus, which only blooms for one day at night. The cycads, which Walska focused on later in her lifetime, are some of the largest specimens of cycads in the world. They like to throw their cones at certain times, and we’d often get there in the dark to capture them. The lotus flowers were the focus of our first shoot, and it was really important to document them in the summer. I also focused on the euphorbias outside of the main house, the ones that look like sea creatures, which, unfortunately, were at the end of their life and have since been replaced. Shooting these rare plants up close really affected the whole composition.

Now that the book is finished and out in the world, do you have a favorite garden or photo from it?

My favorite gardens changed every time I went there. Looking back, I would say my favorite garden and photo come from the Dunlap Cactus Garden, just based on the experience of being in it and how alien it feels. I really love the black-and-white film photos that I shot there, where it almost feels like you’re underwater in a kelp forest. Cacti are usually very upright, but these are curving and weaving over the pathway. They feel very serpentine and spooky. I could have spent five years photographing Lotusland. Every time I went, I experienced different feelings.

The cover of Rizzoli’s Lotusland, photographed by Lisa Romerein, with a foreword by Marc Appleton.

The cover of Rizzoli’s Lotusland, photographed by Lisa Romerein, with a foreword by Marc Appleton.

Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest