Troy Hightower

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Santa Barbara Birthday

Which in the pantheon of gods are those that decree that the day in spring that you elect to set out on a seven-hour road trip will be the day the skies open for the entire day? Turning what should be a lovely spring drive into an exhausting battle of peering through slam-dancing windshield wipers and gouts of truck-wheel spray at the slick road ahead well enough to stay in lane. Flashes of verdant spring California countryside come to the brain in brief glimpses, but can’t be paid any attention.

I had selected Santa Barbara for a short ‘milestone’ birthday trip to combine vistas of gorgeous spring California countryside with various garden visits spiced with interesting dining experiences. It was still sheeting when we turned up the drive lined in grand old olives under which a sea of French lavender bloomed purple, and wearily pulled up to the main lodge at the San Ysidro Ranch in the affluent Santa Barbara suburb of Montecito. We were quickly registered and escorted under umbrella through the splendid herbaceous borders to a cozy and welcoming cottage, this one named Pine, with comfy sitting room, deck overlooking a private garden and warming fireplaces in both sitting and bedrooms. A spacious bathing pavilion with indoor and outdoor showers overlooks a private enclosed hot tub. This cozy cottage in this renowned hideaway provides an auspicious start to a short stay. Now if only the weather will turn for the better. 

SYR is a 500 acre ranch of which the hotel grounds comprise around 30 acres of manicured landscape and gardens—think fifteen gardeners: croquet lawn; koi pond; orange orchards; immaculate chef's garden; wedding terrace; acres of beds and herbaceous borders; and artisan stone walls, steps and courtyards taming the slope down which the property flows. The gardens burst with native and Mediterranean plants--salvias, lavender, catmint, rockrose, star jasmine, ceanothus, and other bedding perennials a-bloom, mostly in the shades of a fiery sunset--pink, red, salmon, orange and lavenders.

SYR was a working citrus ranch dating to the late 1800's, and the old ranch house serves as reception and lobby. The original cut-sandstone fruit drying house, with gorgeous exposed perfectly-fitted block walls, house the restaurants—the informal Plow and Angel downstairs, and the more formal Stonehouse Restaurant up. The menu is a bit run-of-the-mill on the entree side, but the appetizers are a good bit more interesting, and we selected from there two nights running: beet, pear and arugula salad; lobster 'cocktail'--tender chunks of lobster flavored with a reduction from the shells, served over potato puree in a martini glass; short-rib filled ravioli in a beef reduction enriched with cream and liberally studded with black chanterelles; a short-paste tart shell of duck confit and wild mushrooms crusted with a bit of Fontina cheese. Rich dishes to be sure, but not overpowering, and nicely balanced.

Montecito is one of the wealthiest communities in the country, and contains hundreds of stunning private gardens. Just driving around looking at the street-side landscaping is a garden tour in itself. It's very reminiscent--climatically, architecturally and in its plantscapes--of the hills of the Cotes d'Azure in the south of France. One full 30-acre block of this real estate—bounded four sides by a pink stucco wall—is a famous garden known as Lotusland. This amazing place could easily be called Walska's Wonderland of Plants. We are fortunate to be shown around on a day normally closed to the public by Virginia Hayes, who is the Curator of Living Collections. Her position means that she's responsible for additions and deletions to the garden, as well as oversight, along with her assistant, of the care and wellbeing of the garden by it's nine gardeners.

The property was first owned by nurseryman Ralph Kinton Stephens in the late 1800's, and was his home and working nursery. It was subsequently bought in 1916 by one E. Palmer and Marie Gavit of New York, who had the current mansion designed and built, installed gardens described as "semi-formal Italian", and called the estate Cuesta Linda.  The property was bought 1941 by the famous opera singer Madame Ganna Walska when she decided to come west and settle in Santa Barbara. Virginia said "she was married six times, and three of them had buckets of money--she started with a Russian count, and he was loaded". So that when she came to a passion for plants, and decided to make Lotusland into a botanical garden, she had the means to carry out her desires. She changed the name of the property from Cuesta Linda to honor the sacred Indian lotus growing in the Water Garden. With help from noted landscape architects Lockwood de Forest, Jr., Ralph Stevens and others, she transformed the previous formal gardens into the fantastic collection of over 30,000 plants of 3,200 different species that exists today.  

There are 25 separate garden areas spread over the 30 acres, rolling down the gentle slope from the house. At the bottom of the slope is the newest collection, and her last, the Cycads. These are spiky otherworldly looking plants—an ancient group that date to the Permian era, pre dinosaur—that hail mainly from subtropical parts of the world. Nearby is an extensive Japanese garden with lake, sculptural stones, mosses, and many species normally associated with a formal Asian garden--maples, camellias, azaleas, rhododendron and bamboo. Virginia said "Ganna Walska was enamored of the exotic and the massive. So the really large and strange things you see, such as the massive Chilean wine palms, these Royal palms way above us; the enormous mass of Dracaena draco (in the appropriately named Dragon Circle) and those eerie Cycads are all her personal stamp".  

The lotus pool, from which the garden takes its name, flows under an allée of Italian cypress and down a placid water stair. Near the house are garden areas more usual to a wealthy homeowner of the earlier era: a topiary garden, rose and hedge parterre, butterfly garden, olive allée and citrus orchard, all impeccably kept. The Cactus garden is an otherworldly area of hundreds of spiney shapes—tall, branched, barrel and twisted—growing out of crushed gray slate mulch dotted with basalt columns. It incorporates the collection of Walska's friend, the horticulturalist Merritt Dunlap, who donated his cacti amassed over dozens of years to Lotusland in 2000. The succulent and aloe collections are further striking locales with great and small fleshy, curling, oft sharp-spined shapes that cast grotesque shadows in the late-day sun.

Anyone interested in horticulture or gardens should visit Lotusland when in Santa Barbara. The garden takes an hour and a half or two to even superficially explore, and provides a tranquil and soothing interlude. It is theatrical, exotic and extravagant even in an area of over-the-top gardens--perhaps in the end it could as well have been called the Magic Kingdom of Plants.   




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