Take a good look at the woman above, she is a woman who lived anything but an average life. “Enemy of average” was her philosophy. I’m shocked that a screenplay has not been written about her life, a documentary, or at least a musical!
Meet Madame Ganna Walska a Polish born opera singer seductress turned bejeweled socialite turned exotic gardener…? Originally born Hanna Puacz, she later changed her name during her musical studies, in hopes of enchanting a Russian count. Ganna meaning “grace” (the Russian equvient of Hanna) and Walska representing her favorite dance, the waltz. Madame Graceful Waltz.
There was never a man that met Madame Ganna Walska that didn’t almost immediately ask for her hand in marriage, she would usually refuse for awhile until finally giving in, which lead to six marriages, most of them to very successful, wealthy men. Ironically, not one of her ex- husbands lived for more than 10 years after the divorce, and two of them died during the marriage.
Ganna was a woman who fancied eccentricities, dedicating the last 40 years of her life to collecting exotic plants from all over the world and creating a lavish/over the top botanical fantasyland. One of each species of plant was never enough for Ganna she needed as many as possible, her philosophy was undoutably “more is more.” Much like the title of her memoirs, Always Room at the Top.
It was her sixth husband who encouraged Ganna to purchase the historic 37 acre estate in Montecito, California, now known as Lotusland. At that time Ganna was interested in creating a retreat for Tibetan monks, as she had found enlightenment in yoga and began studying Buddhism. It turned out the monks were not able to acquire visas and the marriage fizzled. Therefore Lotusland became her seventh and final marriage, as she gave all of her love and passion to creating a horticultural wonder, her very own piece of earth covered in greenery, texture, shapes, colors and imagination.
Many have called Ganna Walska the “Diana Vreeland of gardening,” I can’t help but wonder if they had ever met or were even friends? I know they would have at least had an appreciation for one another as they both pursued a very original existence, living in worlds that they invented, somewhere between fact and fiction.
The Cycad Garden is likely my favorite and is the most coveted in Lotusland. Nicknamed the “million dollar garden” after Madame Ganna Walska auctioned off her jewels in order to finance the gardens completion. This was her last project before she passed and because of her extreme efforts the garden is home to three encephalartos woodii, the rarest cycad that is extinct in the wild. The cycad plants were in existence when dinosaurs roamed the earth, they grow slowly and live very long. I was allowed to take a large seed from the cycad home as a souvenir and reminder of a very unique woman of insatiable passion and determination, refusing to exist without romance, in some form.
Ganna never had any children, but she did have a cockatiel named Happy that perched on her shoulder as she would walk two miles around her gardens each day. A walk she made every single day until her death on March 2nd, 1984.
“Time and circumstances permitting, I hopefully dreamt that I might fulfill my work to develop Lotusland to its maximum capacity into the most outstanding center of horticultural significance and of educational use.” – Ganna Walska
Lotusland was a feast for the eyes in every direction and redefined my vision of a garden. Ganna used plants the way an artist uses paint, and her canvas, the gorgeous blue California sky.
Photos by Sam & Peter