The woman who was to become the extraordinary Ganna Walska had quite ordinary origins, born Hanna Puacz in 1887 in Brest-Litovsk, Poland.
At the onset of her musical studies, Hanna Puacz took the stage name of Madame Ganna Walska – Madame was the customary title for well-known actresses and operatic singers in Europe, Ganna is a Russian form of Hanna and Walska reminiscent of her favorite music, the waltz.
Over the next decades she sang in New York and Paris and toured America and Europe, attracting the attention of audiences, critics, and gentleman admirers on both sides of the Atlantic.
She married six times, wrote her autobiography, Always Room at the Top (order here), and continued to study both vocal music and spiritual teachings in search of creative fulfillment and personal enlightenment.
After residing in Paris and New York, Madame Walska turned her sights toward California’s sunny climate and free-thinking residents. At the encouragement of Theos Bernard, her sixth and last husband, she purchased the 37-acre Cuesta Linda estate in Santa Barbara in 1941, intending to use it as a retreat for Tibetan monks, and renamed it “Tibetland.”
The Tibetan monks never appeared, and sometime later, after divorcing Bernard, Madame Walska changed the name of her estate to “Lotusland” in honor of the sacred Indian lotus growing in one of the ponds on the property.
She then began what would be a gradual transformation from well-known socialite to garden designer. Most of her energy and resources were poured into creating a botanical garden of rare plants using her natural artistic talents to create a fantasy world of exquisite beauty.
To accomplish this she worked with a number of landscape architects and designers, including Lockwood de Forest, Jr., Ralph T. Stevens, William Paylen, Oswald Da Ros, and Charles Glass.
Madame Walska herself was a designer and loved to mass single species of plants together. She wanted the best, the biggest, and the most unusual plants available and was often willing to pay any price to get them.
So determined was she to finish the work she had begun that in the 1970s she auctioned off some of her jewelry in order to finance her final creation—the cycad garden.
Up until the last few years of her life, she was the feisty, intractable “head gardener” of Lotusland. Ganna Walska died March 2, 1984, at Lotusland, leaving her garden and her entire estate to the Ganna Walska Lotusland Foundation, to ensure that her legacy would remain in her gardens.