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GARDEN TOUR : Inside the Magic Kingdom of Lotusland : Visitors step into a world of rare and wondrous plants at the former estate of Madame Ganna Walska in Montecito.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

So what would you do if your ship came in? Buy a new car? Take a trip? Quit your job? Buy a house?

Madame Ganna Walska built a garden. Lotusland, sort of a Disneyland of plants, consists of 23 landscaped acres of a 37-acre estate nestled in a residential section of Montecito. There are two tours per day, five days a week.

In 1882, the site was a nursery, and over the years it has gone through a succession of names and owners. At one time known as Tanglewood, then Cuesta Linda and Tibetland, the estate became Lotusland after it was purchased in 1941 by Mme. Walska, a well-known Polish opera singer.

Married several times, Mme. Walska spent the last 40 years of her long life experimenting with unusual plants while designing and overseeing the garden. Lotusland is not really a flower garden, although flowers abound, but rather mass plantings with serpentine trails connecting various areas. Mme. Walska consulted noted horticulturists and landscape architects to create her garden, which showcases her affinity for rare specimens. For example, Lotusland has perhaps the finest collection of palms in North America.

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After Mme. Walska died in 1984 at age 96, Lotusland became a private, nonprofit educational institution. A professional staff and trained volunteers operate the estate and conduct the tours. It takes a dozen gardeners (10 working full time) and a million-dollar budget to keep Lotusland operational.

But don’t just drop by. You won’t get in. The waiting list is usually a few months long to get into Lotusland. The tours, which begin promptly at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., are generally limited to groups of about 10 people, but larger tours are available.

Guests are asked to arrive half an hour before the tour begins. While waiting in the parking area, one can browse through the Australian garden featuring grevilleas, Australian tea trees and craspedia globosa, a plant covered in yellow round flowers. It’s wise to use the facilities at this point as the tour takes nearly two hours.

First stop on the tour is the long, winding driveway behind the gated main entrance that heads toward the estate house, which is out of sight some distance ahead. The driveway is lined with numerous large agaves, all of which face the same direction, as though in welcome to any visitors.

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A bit beyond the agave planting is the Japanese garden, featuring a huge koi pond, once a lotus garden. According to the docent, some years ago one of the gardeners introduced crayfish into the pool, but the crustaceans ate most of the lotus plants. Lining the shady path around the pool are a number of camellias, a few rhododendrons, some nandinas and a huge wisteria vine in full bloom.

On the path to the aloe garden are some bird of paradise plants. Not the usual 5-foot or so plants, these giants tower 30 feet above the path. The flowers, normally dominant, are borne on the tops of these plants, making them incidental.

The path takes visitors into the sunny aloe garden, which is like stepping into a Dr. Seuss book. There are more than 100 species of cartoonish and hardy succulents of the lily family, with more than half of them from South Africa. At any given time, a particular species might be blooming with yellow, orange or red flowers.

The original swimming pool is now the lotus pond or water garden. There are no crayfish, but also no lotus flowers until late July or early August. Next stop is back to the main driveway for a mind-blowing collection of cacti leading up to and surrounding one side of the mansion, which now houses offices. There are mass plantings of cacti. A forest of thick-trunked dragon trees fills a large planter in front of the house.

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The shade garden features a number of large ferns plus more than 50 species of begonias, some of which bloom year-round. A highlight of this area is a seldom seen type of clivia. This South African native is a member of the amaryllis family, and is generally known for its electric orange flowers, but a number of specimens in this garden have striking yellow blooms.

Near the house is an expansive bromeliad garden, and in the back, a huge NFL-sized lawn. A 100-year-old monterey cypress tree divides the lawn area from a formal Italian garden.

Behind mass plantings of the typical orange clivias lies an olive orchard, and a long arbor with an unusual touch--lemon trees provide the shade instead of some sort of vine. In the background is a rare deciduous redwood tree from China.

Another of the many highlights of Lotusland is the theatre garden. Set in the lawn are rocky seats for 100, and the grassy stage has a variety of plants as its backdrop. The nearby cycad garden is reputedly the second best in the world. Cycads, which resemble mean little palm trees, have existed for more than 240 million years.

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After nearly two hours of touring, you will be glad you wore comfortable shoes. A garden shop offers Lotusland memorabilia and selected plants.

Mme. Walska was a headstrong woman who got what she wanted and had the money to pay for it. She forbade, for example, the use of any power equipment on the estate. And while she was alive, no pruning was allowed.

Madame is gone, but the rules live on. There are more “don’ts” than on the signs at an Orange County beach. No additional vehicles or people are permitted. No neighborhood parking. No late admissions. No children under 12, including babies. No smoking. No pets. No picnics. No picking flowers or taking cuttings.

Yet, these rules are a small price to pay for a chance to glimpse one woman’s amazing vision.

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Details

* WHAT: Ganna Walska Lotusland.

* WHERE: 695 Ashley Road, Montecito.

* WHEN: Guided tours, Wednesday through Sunday.

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* HOW MUCH: $6 per person.

* FYI: For reservations, call 969-3767. But remember: the waiting list to get in to Lotusland is generally very long. Expect a three-month wait.


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