California is full of hidden gardens that are open for public tours. In Santa Barbara (actually, it's in the posh eastern suburb of Montecito), Lotusland is the former estate of the eccentric, artistic Madame Ganna Walska. This is no ordinary botanic garden, as I found out when I took a tour last week.
Although the garden does have its formal aspects -- parterre hedging, topiary of animals and chess pieces, and a Moorish mosaic-tile fountain -- mostly left over from the family that owned the property in the early 20th century, there's no riot of flowering bowers here. What you've come to see are the obsessive gardens planned by Madame Walska herself, an operatic singer, spiritualist and serial monogamist in the style of Elizabeth Taylor. Madame Walska was not a fan of nurturing flowers as much as she was of planting several dozen of the strangest-looking, most exotic plants you can imagine altogether, sometimes whimsically themed by color. Look for misty ferns, scores of aloe and cactus varieties, ancient cycads and even a rare dawn redwood from China.
The best time to visit the garden is when the lotus pond is in full bloom, usually between late June and late August. Another colorful time is after winter rains in early spring, when everything is lush. But if you go now, you can take advantage of a special rate ($25) for a two-hour guided tour, which normally costs $35. Tours are currently offered at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday from mid-February through mid-November. For reservations (which are required), call (805) 969-9990 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday to Friday, or 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturday.
Photo: Montecito, California (Sara J. Benson)