There aren’t too many places in the world where the casual morning conversation goes something like this: “Oh, that’s just a crazy bulb from Peru. It was collected by the guy who named the species.” A few steps and seconds later, the matter-of-fact delivery continues, “Yeah, it’s very rare, from South Africa. It may or may not be extinct. There’s probably not a breeding population.”
But that’s day-to-day life in the nursery of Lotusland, the Montecito estate whose longtime owner and Polish opera diva Ganna Walska turned the grounds into a botanic paradise of exotic plants before she died in 1984. Though open for tours since the mid 1990s, never before has Lotusland offered the public the chance to take home a piece of its legacy (aside from the tiny plants for sale in the gift shop). That will all change on Saturday, September 8, with the auction of nearly 100 specimens, all of them fascinatingly rare, and many with the most prominent provenance possible.
Much of what will be auctioned off — indeed, much of Lotusland as it is today — is the direct result of the influence of former garden manager Charles Glass and his business partner Bob Foster, who together ran Abbey Garden Nursery and Press. Walska hired Glass as her garden manager, a position he held for nearly a dozen years, making him the longest-serving supervisor of Lotusland.
“They had a lot of influence on the plant collections here,” said Lotusland curator Virginia Hayes (also the author of The Santa Barbara Independent’s gardening column), explaining that the duo would travel the world, particularly the semi-arid deserts of Central Mexico, in search of peculiar plants. Once Glass and Foster brought the plants back to California, they would produce numerous cuttings and seedlings, boosting the availability of these rare species before such collecting expeditions were banned by the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) agreement of 1973. “These guys were collectors,” said Paul Mills, assistant curator, who also worked for Abbey Garden during the company’s Carpinteria days, “but they were master propagators, too.”
Because of their work, Lotusland remains a repository of fabulous flora, a place where endangered and even extinct-in-the-wild species are safe. The auction is just one way of disseminating more of these coveted specimens out into the world. “We like to call ourselves a living museum,” said Hayes, to which Mills added, “Or a life raft for threatened species.”
Garden Luminary: Diane Dunhill
During the auction at Lotusland, there will be a few “garden luminaries” wandering through the crowd, ready to share their knowledge of the plants’ biology and history and to offer guidance on how to keep them alive. One such luminary is Diane Dunhill, who worked at Abbey Garden from 1978 to 1995 and also enjoyed a 16-year relationship with Bob Foster, who died within a year of Charles Glass, both at age 64. “They were mega-forerunners in the succulent world,” explained Dunhill, who believes the men met when Foster got caught sneaking into Glass’s backyard nursery in Reseda. “Bob and Charles were literally like movie stars in the plant world.”
While growing up in Glendale, Dunhill got into botany at age 16, when her mother bought her an African violet. She studied sculpture in college but wound up with a career in plants. “It was like these living sculptures, basically,” said Dunhill, whose San Roque yard is consumed by exotic species, and her home’s interior is a showcase of shells and other collectibles, not to mention a macaw and cockatoo. She explained, “My house has always looked like a natural history museum.”
Like Lotusland, Dunhill’s home is a library of hard-to-find species, and she propagates and sells them, as well. She donated the bombax to the auction and has given other plants to the garden, as well, in hopes that the mystery and beauty of her donations just might “convert” a Lotusland visitor into a passionate plant lover. Explained Dunhill, “It just karmically feels good.”
Aloe forbesii: Like a slender version of the common aloe plant with tassels of red-orange flowers, Aloe forbesii is not a particularly bizarre-looking species. But this aloe hails from Socotra, a Middle Eastern island archipelago off the coast of Yemen that’s home to the rarest plants on Earth, including the Dragon’s Blood Tree. This particular specimen is the offspring of what collector John Lavranos found in 1967, when he rediscovered the species that had previously been identified more than 60 years earlier. He was part of a British military expedition that scoured the island before the United Kingdom gave up its hold on the colony, which was in revolt. In Lavranos’s extensive travels in Arabia and Africa, the succulents found and dispersed by him were, according to the February 2012 issue of Cactus Explorer, “arguably the most extensive and important of the twentieth century.” As for Socotra, it remains a difficult place to visit, especially with the increasing pirate activity around the Horn of Africa. Said Mills, “It’s getting pretty hairy there.”
Brahea nitida: A fan palm from the Sonoran Desert of Mexico, the parent of this seedling-for-sale was most likely collected by Santa Barbara’s horticultural pioneer Francesco Franceschi, who first brought the species to the region in 1896. “I identified two old palms — one at Lotusland and one at the Gillespie estate in Montecito — as Brahea nitida, and they probably were from Franceschi’s nursery,” explained Myron Kimnach, the 89-year-old former director of the Huntington Botanical Garden. “I don’t know of any older Brahea nitidas in the U.S.A.”
Encephalartos horridus × woodii: “Everyone wants this plant,” divulged Mills of this curious cross of cycads, the ancient flora that today inspires cult-like adherence among collectors. E. woodii is the father of this already robust, 25-gallon specimen with sharp leaflets and a glossy green hue, but that species is extinct in the wild — last collected in 1905 — so the remaining male plant can only be crossed with females of other species.
Pseudobombax ellipticum: Very alien in appearance due to stunted growth that’s swollen its caudex into a massive barked blob, this “bombax” is a perfect example of what collectors crave: a unique example of a rare species. Glass and Foster collected this exact specimen back in 1972, just before CITES came into effect. “It was pretty close to this size when they got it,” said Dunhill, who donated this plant from her extensive backyard nursery. Her copy of the team’s notes from that collection mission explain, “… we stopped at a fascinating lava flow on the other side of the river at Ixtapantongo, by the dam below the Ixtapantongo power plant, elev. 1280 m., a wonderful succulent garden.” Plus, when in bloom, the bombax is quite a sight, said Hayes, explaining, “The flowers look like a shaving brush.”
Calibanus × Beaucarnea: Likely the big-ticket item for the entire auction is this stumpy, stringy tree, a surprise and unexpected cross between Calibanus — a ball-like, woody root topped with a frock of grassy hair named after the monster Caliban from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest — and Beaucarnea, commonly known as the ponytail palm. The seed was discovered decades ago by Glass, who thought it was a Calibanus until it began showing other characteristics as it developed. Though private individuals may have blended these species on their own, this could be the biggest of this hybrid on the planet, now standing in a three-foot-wide pot more than head-high. Adding to the history is that it was Glass and Foster who rediscovered Calibanus hookerii while on a trip to Central Mexico, where they noticed natives coming down from the mountains with bunches of grass to make baskets. The duo went up and found the species, first setting eyes on one plant the caudex of which was “the size of a Volkswagen bus,” recalled Dunhill. “They rediscovered Calibanus in the wild,” said Mills. “It had been lost to science.”
Lotusland’s Exceptional Plants auction and sale is on Saturday, September 8, at 2 p.m. For more info and tickets, which are $125, call 969-3767 or see lotusland.org.