Forget about rubies - she wanted cycads

A former opera singer used her wealth to create a dramatic, one-of-a-kind garden

Some people might sell diamonds or rubies to pay for a mortgage, a child's college tuition, or a spiffy new set of wheels. But rare is the woman who hawks $1 million worth of jewels for a cycad garden.

Ganna Walska was a rare woman indeed. An opera singer in New York and Paris during the1920s, Madame Walska, as she was called, had a collector's eye and acquired such treasures as Chagall paintings, Steuben and Tiffany glass, and those gems. But she was especially passionate about plants, the more exotic the better.

Walskawas married six times, mostly to prominent men, but she had no children. Each divorce settlementleft her with great sums of money, which she chose to spend on plants - 2,700 different varieties of them - for the stunning and otherworldly 37-acre garden and estate she named Lotusland.

Walska's wish was to develop Lotusland "to its maximum capacity into the most outstanding center of horticultural significance and of educational use." But she kept tight reins on publicity. Although she purchased the estate in 1941 and established a nonprofit foundation in 1958, Lotusland didn't open to the public until 1993, nine years after her death at age 97.

Today, Lotusland is rarely publicized. This is partly out of respect for the quiet-seeking residents of tony Montecito, who include Oprah, Kevin Costner, and a host of other celebrities.

Only 100 people and no more than 40 cars are allowed entry on a given day, and visitors must book a tour in advance (sometimes months ahead). Members are given priority access, including to special events during winter months when Lotusland is otherwise closed to the public.

The collection of 1,000 cycads - imported from Mexico, Guatemala, and Asia - are the most celebrated plants at Lotusland. Cycads, which predate dinosaurs, typically resemble shrunken palm trees (with trunks only about six feet tall). Rare ones are widely considered a status symbol affordable only by the rich. Brad Pitt and David Bowie are well-known cycad collectors.

Three of Walska's cycads are among the rarest and most valuable in the world. Collectively, they are worth in the tens of thousands of dollars. Sitting majestically above a koi pond, the cycads elicit awe from visitors.

Other gardens at Lotusland reflect Walska's dramatic flair: the Theatre Garden, the Blue Garden, and the serene Japanese Garden. But some of the most interesting discoveries come from meandering down winding paths into unexpectedly lush tropical and semitropical habitats of ferns, aloes, and cacti.

Or when walking through a grove of eucalyptus trees imported from Australia and then happening upon a still, glassy pond with its smooth surface interrupted only by water lilies or, if it's late June, lotus blossoms.

Walska considered plants as her children, and at least twice each day she would leave the comfort of her grand adobe-style home up the hill to visit them. Today, 14 gardeners and a host of volunteers and interns keep tabs on her "kids."

Docent Barbara Silver, an avid gardener, is clearly tickled to be working at Lotusland. A former research librarian at the University of California Santa Barbara, she learned about Lotusland from her son, who performed a 20-hour stint of required community service there.

As it turns out, he became so enamored of the garden estate that he not only talked his mother into applying for a job there, but he also switched his college major to horticulture.

"He had never so much as watered a geranium before," his mother says with a laugh.

Much of the appeal for Ms. Silver is Walska herself, whom she says was not only bold and beautiful but also a "spiritual quester."

"She was a great character," says Silver, who is wearing a floppy white canvas hat, teal bobby socks, and a beige-linen shorts suit with a feather tucked in her shirt pocket.

"I'm sorry I didn't know her" she adds. I often find myself thinking, 'What would Madame do in this situation?' "

Silver is not alone in her fascination with Walska. It's virtually impossible to visit Lotusland without wondering what kind of a person would create such a place. For as Walska herself put it: "My garden is out of this world."

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