The Lowdown on Lotusland

Montecito’s Eccentric Garden Paradise Comes to Life in New Book

The Lowdown on Lotusland

Montecito’s Eccentric Garden Paradise Comes to Life in New Book

By Leslie Dinaberg | May 19, 2022

Underneath the canopy of towering dragon trees (Dracaena draco) is a large, candelabrum-shaped Isolatocereus dumortieri as well as eye-catching clusters of golden barrels (Echinocactus grusonii), which were some of Madame Ganna Walska’s favorite cacti. | Credit: ©Lotusland by Rizzoli, New York, 2022. Image ©Lisa Romerein

Show business ran deep through the veins of Madame Ganna Walska, so when the time finally came to showcase her legendary garden in book form, the pressure was on.

And like the creation of Montecito’s extraordinary 37-acre public garden extravaganza, it took a whole cast of characters to bring the new, 288-page coffee-table book Lotusland: Eccentric Garden Paradise (Rizzoli, 2022) ​— ​stunningly photographed by Lisa Romerein ​— ​to life.

It’s always been a desire to share Lotusland with as many people as possible, a challenge because the county permit limits the number of visitors to the garden to just 15,000 people a year. Architect Marc Appleton, a longtime supporter and former trustee of Ganna Walska Lotusland, had unsuccessfully tried to drum up support for a book project for years. But the stars never quite aligned until 2019, when the “Book Committee” was formed, with current trustee Dorothy Gardner and former trustees Suzanne Mathews and Alex Morse joining Appleton. 

Lotusland is sited on a gently sloping hill and spans 37 acres. With the area’s coastal Mediterranean climate — and almost 300 days of sunshine per year — the property has been a testing ground for experimenting with new types of tropical and subtropical plants since 1882. | Credit: ©Lotusland by Rizzoli, New York, 2022. Illustrated by Janice Blair

“We raised independent funds from subscribers to establish a publication budget, and we were off and running,” said Appleton. Curator Paul Mills, historian Rose Thomas, Jeff Chemnick, Mike Furner, Corey Welles, founding trustee Arthur Gaudi, Eric Nagelmann (who designed the cactus garden), and Madame Walska’s niece Hania Tallmadge (who recently passed away) were but a few of the many people involved in this team effort.

“Everyone said yes, which is kind of remarkable and a testament to their relationships,” said executive director Rebecca Anderson. “It really was volunteer-driven, and that’s important to appreciate and highlight, particularly in this town where so many volunteers do so much.” 

The book has a lot of ground to cover ​— ​and it does. “While it’s meant to focus on the garden today and our future, it’s meant to be a garden book,” said Anderson. “It’s not meant to be a retrospective of how the garden began. But I really appreciate that we were able to get in there the people who created this place, because without a little bit of that, it’s not a complete story.”

Indeed, the dramatic flair and inimitable spirit of Madame Walska is woven throughout the book while exploring her world-renowned horticultural showplace, home to more than 3,400 types of plants, including at least 35,000 individual specimens.

Another important factor Anderson emphasized is “making sure that people not only have takeaways about inspiration and ideas for design or knowledge of particular plants in that index in the back, but also that they understand that this is all done with organic materials and sustainable practices.” 

Madame Ganna Walska picks fruit from the lemon arbor, c. 1958 | Credit: J. R. Eyerman, Ganna Walska. Lotusland Archives

With such a large scope of the gardens to be documented, Mills worked with Romerein and her photography assistant, Dean Courtois, to shoot over the span of a year, “to try to catch as many moods and happenings in the garden as possible,” said Mills. “Lotusland really is not a ‘flowery’ garden; it’s more about bold and dramatic presentation of plants. But each season does present different opportunities to capture, and I would help guide them to these.”

He continued, “Every plant on the property has a story, but I would try to lead them to the ones that are more intriguing for one reason or another: a cycad that is now extinct in the wild and only exists in gardens like Lotusland; a dragon tree that dates back to the 1880s, when Kinton Stevens had his nursery on the property; a cactus that is endemic to the Galapagos Islands and rarely seen in botanical collections.”

Since the first shoot was in the summer, they had to capture the namesake plant, the sacred lotus, “in all its glory,” explained Mills. “Winter had to focus on the aloe garden, because that is when those plants light up with their torch-like inflorescences, and also on the Japanese garden, which really shows that season with the golden carpet of ginkgo leaves and shapely, dormant maples. I would scout the garden before their arrival, but so many times, we would just happen across things: a flowering bromeliad, a fern leaf unfurling, or the perfect lighting for an overall shot.” 

With 19 distinct gardens to spotlight, choosing a favorite is like choosing a favorite child. But when asked which section of the book he’s most proud of, Mills confided, “I would have to say the chapter on the Dunlap cactus garden. It’s my favorite garden on the property, not only because I was so involved in moving the collection to Lotusland and helping to oversee its installation, but because of the story behind it. Lisa was also very drawn to this garden, so it got a lot of attention and amazing photos in the book.”

He continued, “We’d often be on the cart heading to a different garden, passing by the Dunlap garden, and Lisa would shout ‘Stop!’ because she saw something looking just right.” That garden was installed after Madame Walska passed away, but it began in 1966, when Merritt “Sigs” Dunlap bequeathed his cactus collection to Lotusland. “She saw this as something great and accepted,” said Mills. The collection was donated in 2001, and the garden built in 2003, just in time for Dunlap to celebrate his 97th birthday. 

“We know Madame Ganna Walska would approve of this garden,” said Mills. “She loved cacti and dramatic landscapes, and its completion signified the fulfillment of her and Dunlap’s wish.”

Credit: ©Lotusland by Rizzoli, New York, 2022

Appleton, who worked on a somewhat similar project with Rizzoli for Casa del Herrero in 2009, wrote the introduction to Lotusland. “Making the book happen in the right way was challenging, and there were ultimately a lot of interests to entertain along the way,” he said. “But I think the book will have a long life as a fairly comprehensive presentation of Lotusland and why it is such a special garden. Lisa’s photos are amazing and capture its magic.”


Lotusland: Eccentric Garden Paradise is available at local retailers as well as through the onsite gift shop and online at Limited spots are available for a Luncheon on the Lawn to celebrate the book on Saturday, May 21, at 11:30 a.m. In addition, Lotusland’s 2022 season is now open to reservations through August. Admission is $50 for adults and $25 for children ages 3-17. For more information and reservations, visit

Catch up on the rest of our annual Home & Garden special issue here.


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