Hanna Puacz’s Last Invention

State Street Scribe

by Jeff Wing

How to describe the indescribable? Lotusland is a horticultural fireworks display, a kaleidoscope with roots. Lotusland’s aesthetic embrace has the playfully mesmerizing palette of Chagall, the stark, glassine beauty of Georgia O’Keefe, the mirthful angularities of de Kooning, the shadowy, tea-colored welcome home of Wyeth (Andrew), and the floral primordialism of the Flintstones opening credits. 

There.

Most significantly, the place is the floral incarnation of bon vivant Ganna Walska; the bejeweled comet whose 96 spark-throwing years find their summation, and their ongoing expression, here at Lotusland. Is the founding matriarch alive? Ganna Walska is very much alive. Where blood once coursed through Ganna’s veins, now chlorophyll is the life-stuff that animates her. That the very name Ganna Walska was an invention sheds the barest introductory light on Lotusland’s dynamo . She invented at will, did Ganna; or Hanna, rather. She was inventing to the very end, to our immense common benefit.

Garden Schmarden

Ganna’s life project—Lotusland—is a garden in much the same way the Eiffel Tower is a radio antenna. The description is technically correct but hobbled by an insufficiency of color and gravity. A lifelong iconoclast and gatherer of jewelry, fine art, and experiential wisdom, Madame set everything aside when she found her floral mission.

photo courtesy Lotusland

“When Ganna Walska got here, she stopped collecting anything else and devoted herself to the garden. And this is so clearly her garden,” laughs Gwen Stauffer, Lotusland’s CEO. “It’s so personal. The garden has her genes.”

The place is a indeed a wonderland, a dreamscape—a couple terms that are likely too shopworn to truly suit the subject. The look of Lotusland is such that one walks around half expecting a glimpse of The Cat in the Hat ranging through the peripheries of this oddball Eden. Lotusland Director of Communications Bob Craig, a laconic appreciator of his eccentric home turf, has agreed to take me around the many sunlit rooms of this roofless mansion. We’re headed for the so-called Cactus Garden.

We stop along the way to take in one of Lotusland’s many roadside attractions. “This is kind of an embodiment of Ganna’s whimsical nature,” Bob understates with a chuckle as we approach the object in question. “A topiary clock.”

More than a just a grin-producing decorative element, the floral clock is a work of horticultural art, the face upholstered with low-lying succulents and muted blossoms, each hour represented with a large zodiac symbol of beautifully tooled copper. “It’s a working clock!” Bob confirms. 25 feet in diameter, Madame’s flower-bedecked timepiece was showily unveiled the year Captain Kangaroo made his television debut – 1955. And as you have no doubt guessed, dear reader, the unveiling was done in the jostling presence of 600 delegates to the National Shade Tree convention then meeting in town. True story.

photo courtesy Lotusland

Where exactly did Madame come up with her ideas? “It’s interesting,” Craig says. “She was a big scrap-booker. We probably have 100 of her scrapbooks. She would see something she liked, cut it out of a magazine and paste it into a scrapbook.”

Wow.

With this knowledge, one may look with new eyes on Lotusland’s phantasmagorical offerings and see an endearing, excited lover of beauty, little Hanna Puacz—now in her autumn years and having supped at Life’s table—seated by lamplight with scissors, preparing a final grand assemblage.

Hanna and Ganna: Little Girl Found

Ganna’s facts are well recorded, as is the droll bullet list of her several husbands, as if that explains Madame and her deliciously mad garden (and it just may)! She tied the knot six times, yes. The Edwardian era’s strutting, cigar-chewing, lavishly mustachioed, wife-oppressing chauvinists were drawn to powerful women outside the marital contract like iron filings to a magnet

Ganna in her element (photo J. R. Eyerman)

Whether this meets the technical definition of irony we can’t be sure, but the bravado-radiating Ms. Walska was a beneficiary of the Age’s masculine bipolarity.

The husbands Ganna drew out of the woodwork were of a particular stripe. Her last husband could twist himself into a tantric pretzel (one of his least-exhausting qualities, but it can’t have helped). One invented, amid much fanfare, a Death Ray. One of them reportedly received an experimental implant of monkey glands in order to keep up with Madame’s lamplit amour. Our meteoric heroine inspired that sort of courtship. But before Ganna, there was Hanna.

Hanna Puacz (“Hanna Pu-aught”) was born in 1887 in Brest-Litovsk, in what is now a sovereign Poland, but which was then part of the Russian Empire. When little Hanna was nine, her mother died, and 9 years later her father shipped her off to live with an uncle in St. Petersberg, in Russia proper. Possibly it was the teenaged Hanna’s rampant energy that prompted her harried father, Napolean Puacz, to send her off to his brother’s home in another country. We can only guess—though a glimpse of Lotusland may shed some light on what Mr. Puacz was up against. Lovely, isn’t it?

Gift of the Cacti

One enters each of Lotusland’s separate gardens like a stunned bit player in an episode of The Twilight Zone—each beauteous but jarring scene change wholly unannounced by what came before, an imaginary violin describing the guest’s pleasant dislocation with a marcato major 7th chord. And so the sudden Cactus Garden with its towering, muted browns and greens spontaneously looms, extending as far as one can see, somehow.

photo courtesy Lotusland

The 300-some species of prickly succulents are punctuated, of course, by the occasional Boojum tree, and are arranged by country of origin. Designed by Eric Nagelmann, the cactus garden has a smallish summit in its midst from which one can survey the desert forest. It’s an extraordinary site.

“This place is practically indescribable,“ Craig concedes. “Madame could be a challenge to work for, but she was revered around here.” It would seem some of the designers would drop their intransigence and come to see things through Ganna’s eyes. “The garden designer, Eric Nagelmann, is a really interesting guy. He tells a story about presenting the Cactus Garden design to the Board of Trustees. One of the directors says ‘Eric, won’t the transition from the Cactus Garden to the lawn be rather strikingly abrupt?’ And he says, ‘I certainly hope so!’”

Star-Crossed Singer with a Green Thumb

Even those only glancingly acquainted with Ganna’s biography know she spent much of her life in the determined pursuit of an opera career that had its fits and starts, but never quite blossomed to her satisfaction—though she did once successfully share the playbill with legendary tenor Enrico Caruso. Acquiring the Montecito property at the age of 54, Ganna finally discovered her true canvas, and began applying her liberated brushstrokes with real abandon.

“She was outrageous,” Stauffer says, “and she was ahead of her time, adopting styles of dress way ahead of the mainstream. For instance, she was wearing turbans in the 1920s, and they didn’t become fashionable until the 50s or 60s. You know? She did what she wanted to do. Because she liked her bling, she blinged up the garden. So much of what she was doing was her own thing, and it was over the top,” Stauffer chuckles appreciatively.

Tibet or Not Tibet
photo courtesy Lotusland

Ganna Walska’s purchase of the Lotusland parcel roughly coincided with both the disintegration of her sixth and final marriage, and her revelatory conclusion that her avid pursuit of a career in opera was not, after all these decades of earnest effort, going to bear fruit.

What happened was this. At the pleading suggestion of her last and most exasperating husband, Ganna Walska had bought the 37 acres of Montecito prime from British diplomat and part-time yoga hobbyist Sir Humphrey Clarke in 1941. It was Clarke who had suggested to his New York spiritual teacher—Ganna’s husband, Vedantic gadfly Theos Bernard—that the California property might be the perfect spot on which to found Bernard’s long dreamed-of Academy of Tibetan Literature, where throngs of Tibetan monks in saffron-colored robes would toil monastically over thousands of as yet untranslated sacred Buddhist texts.

So Ganna, primarily a creature of NYC and Paris (France, not Texas) indulged her Theos, patiently moving her life (and her voice coach) from the East coast to sun-soaked California. It was, as these things go, a fateful decision. Her handsome, mercurial final husband, an author and authority of some note on Tibetan Buddhism, would later that decade vanish under mysterious circumstances along the Rhotang pass near Pakistan, where he’d trekked in search of lost Sanskrit manuscripts. For all his authority on the region and its spiritual underpinnings, Theos finally didn’t have the rationalist sense to stay out of the area as India and Pakistan were undergoing their explosively violent partition. Theos and Ganna had agreed that their new Montecito purchase would be called Tibetland. Ganna later changed the name to Lotusland. The monks would never arrive.

The Effect of Ganna Rays on a Formerly Traditionalist Garden

When Ganna Walska effectively surrendered her opera dream and pivoted to her new avocation—what we may call Madame’s Botanical Expressionism—it was with the energized rapture of someone in the throes of self-discovery. Ganna began enlisting people. Lockwood de Forest, Santa Barbara’s premiere landscape architect, was brought in to clean up and refurbish the somewhat timeworn gardens as they then existed, to do new plantings around various cottages on the property, to construct certain pools and “oases”, and to festoon the house’s entrance with both statuesque and artfully daliesque cacti of several varieties. Following her orders, the famed landscape architect would later, in lightly coded language, send a note congratulating Madame Walska on her design spontaneity.

Still later would come Charles Glass’ immersive Bromeliad Garden, William Paylen’s ecstatically hushed Fern Garden, Frank Fujii’s Japanese Garden, Dutch designer Peter Thiele’s water stairway…and Lotusland’s growing reputation as one of the world’s most magnificent, and singular, public gardens. In the mid-70s Charles Glass pitched another wild idea to Madame, an idea that would flower into the Cycad Garden; a Mesozoic rock show without parallel. Ganna would sell off her precious jewelry collection to pay for it, correctly surmising that this garden’s aesthetic, and biological, value would make it a priceless addition to Lotusland.

Egad – Cycads!

“These are probably the most famous plants in the garden,” Lotusland’s Bob Craig tells me on our Cycad Garden walkthrough, gesturing at three apparent prop trees from Spielberg’s Jurassic Fleeing film franchise. Standing side by side in their own corner of the cycad jungle, and perched on the banks of a koi pond, the three look for all the world like venerated founding fathers.

We Three Kings – photo courtesy Lotusland

“They’re called Enchephalartos woodii, and they no longer exist in the wild. They only exist in Botanic Gardens. And there are no know females any longer, there are only males. The only way to propagate them is to take a shoot from the bottom of the plant and try to get it to grow.”

The lower-lying cycads in the garden are primordial-looking and coniferous, their ground-level seed cones poking upward like hastily painted Star Trek set pieces. The Cycad Garden contains over 450 specimens, and more than half the world’s Cycad species. “Look at the color in this guy!” Bob exults at one point. Some of the cones are tactically disintegrating, spreading the cycad news, as it were.

“You know, we bring every 4th grader in Santa Barbara county through here,” Craig tells me, describing Lotusland’s outreach to elementary school kids. “When I first started here, I thought ‘oh my gosh. Will the kids be interested’? But we first send someone to the classroom where they give the kids an hour or so of plant biology. The kids come in here so jazzed, so excited!”

For those particularly struck with wonder during the Lotusland guided wander, there are volunteer opportunities. What could be more thrilling than to be an emissary of the place? “We have a docent training program,” Craig says as we make our way from the Cycad to the Tropical Garden, with its dangling orchid cacti and banana plants. where a toothy T-Rex seems even more likely to appear with its dripping jaws agape. “12 weeks of classes on Mondays. You learn about the history of Lotusland, you learn some plant science, and then we turn you loose on the guests. As a docent, you get all kinds of access to the garden.”

CUP Runneth Over: The Lotusland Misperception Corrected

Gwen Stauffer came to Lotusland with a wildly varied background, from botanical academia to heavyweight experience in vast private and public gardens. She has seen and done and budgeted it all. She knows from constraints.

“One of the things that makes my job here a challenge is the misperception about Lotusland.” She pauses. “People in the community know about Lotusland’s restrictions, but many don’t know, or have forgotten about the 64 public hearings over nine years to get the garden open. It was a struggle. Madame died in ’84, and had started a foundation around ’58. Once she started building a garden all of her planning was about people seeing it.” Another pause.

“I don’t think it ever occurred to her there would be opposition to the garden opening. In a way I’m glad she didn’t know, because I sometimes wonder how she would have viewed that, if she would have bothered, or been too dismayed. Knowing her spirit, I think she would have gone forward anyway.” The crux of CEO Stauffer’s theme is that Santa Barbara County’s Conditonal Use Permit (CUP) restrictions were made a part of Lotusland’s character through nine years of sometimes fractious public hearings. And had Ganna known how those limits would restrict the viability of her beloved public garden, she might have set more of her fortune aside for Lotusland’s future rainy days.

photo courtesy Lotusland

“If we could get more people in the community to engage with Lotusland, it would be less a struggle for the garden financially,” Stauffer says, referring to the visitor count ceilings imposed by the County through the public hearing process. The garden could sensibly accept more visitors. “Madame did not leave a lot of money for Lotusland, because she thought it would pay for itself.“

As it was, Ganna lavished cash on the Music Academy of the West, Santa Barbara Beautiful, the City of Santa Barbara for arboreal care, and other institutions and organizations in town. “We have to raise, through earned and contributed income, 75 –80% of our annual budget every year,” Stauffer emphasizes slowly. “The most care-intensive part of Lotusland for me is seeing to it that it is here forever. The green that I’m tending,” she laughs ruefully, “is often the dollars.”

So; contrary to some local conventional wisdom which laments Lotusland’s seemingly miserly windows of visitation, Lotusland’s keepers would be fine with more people and more public participation, were it possible. Lotusland does not imperiously limit access to her riches, is not an effete hoity-toity with her nose in the air. 

Those who knew the former Hanna Puacz knew her to be an egalitarian, an open door, and a lover of life. Yes, with her own take on daily reality.

We enter the Aloe Garden, with its burst of flowering color and reported 140 varieties of the Africa and Madagascar native. The meditative space is anchored by the kidney-shaped Shell Pond, a personal favorite and pet project of Madame’s. The pristine, white-bottomed, crystal clear abalone-lined pool is pure Ganna. After a minute or so of quiet appreciation amid the music of water cascading down a series of gigantic South Pacific clamshells, Bob Craig breaks the silence. “I love this garden,” he says ruminatively. “I like to bring people here last. In some ways this is the summation of Ganna’s vision. You see all the other whimsical parts of the garden, and here it suddenly sort of all makes sense.” I stare as the water gambols down the alarmingly cartoon-like giant clams.

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” I reply.

 

[originally published in Montecito Journal Magazine]