The New Cactus Garden at Lotusland

By: Steven Timbrook Virginia Hayes

Virginia Hayes has been curator of the living collection at Ganna Walska Lotusland in Santa Barbara since 1992. She also…

More From This Author
View towards the surrounding woodland

View towards the surrounding woodland. Photographs by Steven Timbrook

The completion of the Cactus Garden at Lotusland in spring, 2003, was the realization of a project that actually had its beginning in 1929, when Merritt “Sigs” Dunlap bought his first potted cactus plant. Three passions—Sigs’s for cacti, Eric Nagelman’s for striking design, and Lotusland’s for sustainable horticulture and environmental awareness—have come together in this new garden with spectacular results.

The Cactus Garden occupies nearly three-quarters of an acre in a previously unlandscaped area at the eastern edge of the Lotusland property. Its core plantings come from Sigs’s cactus collection, which he amassed over his lifetime and which numbered over 1,000 plants at its peak in the 1960s. Sigs and Madame Walska met in 1941, when he served as an officer stationed in Santa Barbara. They maintained their friendship over the years; Sigs and his wife Dorothy visited Lotusland and Madame Walska several times. Sigs offered to leave his collection to Lotusland in 1966, at the suggestion of Charles Glass, a well-known cactus and succulent collector who later came to Lotusland as Madame’s garden manager. Madame Walska wrote in reply, “. . . how strange that both of us were preoccupied about the future of our beloved plants.” Sigs maintained detailed inventories and continued to add to his collection until, by the late 1990s, arthritis prevented him from walking up and down the steep slope of his garden in Fallbrook, in interior San Diego County. Lotusland staff began visiting Sigs and his cacti in 1991 and, by 1998, were scheduling workdays to pull weeds, prune, and maintain identifying labels on the plants. By 1999, Sigs had decided that the time had come for the relocation of the whole collection and, as a first step in 2000, the contents of his small greenhouse were moved to Lotusland.

A scarlet-flowered Echinopsis species

A scarlet-flowered Echinopsis species

Lotusland staff members Paul Mills and Esau Ramirez oversaw the move of the remaining plants from Fallbrook in 2001, enlisting the help of many others on the Lotusland horticultural staff. Here’s how Paul describes the work:

From May through August, we made twelve trips to Fallbrook in a twelve-foot stake-bed truck with a lift gate. We would leave early Monday morning and return late Tuesday evening with a truckload of plants. Wednesday through Friday were dedicated to unloading the truck and planting the cacti and cuttings in the shade structure at Lotusland. We worked from the smallest to the largest plants in consecutive passes through Sigs’s garden. Almost all plants traveled upright, with root balls protected so they wouldn’t get pulverized on their four-hour ride. Many were framed individually and then secured to crossing two-by-fours in the stake bed.

In October, we began work on the thirty-one largest plants. Using a backhoe, the four sides of the root ball were dug to about an eighteen-inch depth. Next, the four sides of the box were built and attached to the root ball and a wooden superstructure was built above the box while the plant was still attached to the ground underneath. They often looked quite precarious like this and, really, I can’t believe that none ever toppled over. Using the backhoe bucket, a cable was then dragged under the root ball to separate the plant from the ground. The plant was then tilted to insert the bottom boards, which, for ease of removal, were strapped rather than nailed to complete the box.

The boxes were then loaded on semi-trucks for the trip to Lotusland and off-loaded at the temporary nursery where the rest of the Dunlap Collection awaited design of the new garden.

Sandstone stairs rise to a central overlook

Sandstone stairs rise to a central overlook

Goals for a New Garden

A botanical garden can be a challenging client for a garden designer. Lotusland had three goals for the creation of the Cactus Garden: 1) to incorporate the Dunlap Collection in a dramatic and unusual design, in keeping with the other gardens at Lotusland, 2) to group the plants geographically, reflecting the way they were arranged in Sigs’s garden and enhancing their educational value, and, 3) to facilitate Lotus-land’s sustainable horticulture practices. We were fortunate that noted Santa Barbara designer Eric Nagelman was not only up to the challenge, but willing to donate his services to create a conceptual design. He helped us select Pat Scott Masonry and Valencia Tree & Landscape to carry out the project and devoted three months, day in and day out, working with Paul Mills and grounds superintendent Mike Iven in directing and coordinating the construction and planting that brought the Cactus Garden to life.

The dramatic entrance to the garden is from either side of a restored historic fountain, which dates back to the 1920s, at the end of an olive alleé. A flagstone terrace now extends out around the freestanding wall on which the fountain is mounted and hedges of pomegranate (Punica granatum) have become the walls of this new “foyer.” Water once again spouts into a basin from the mouth of the bas-relief hippocampus (the mythical beast—half horse, half serpent—that pulled Poseidon’s chariot through the sea). At the front corners of the basin, water spills over two carved ram’s heads, dripping from their beards into a larger ground level pool.

Cleistocactus samaipatanus. Photographs by Steven Timbrook

Cleistocactus samaipatanus

Gray decomposed granite paths snake between raised beds buttressed by 300 tons of large basalt boulders from a quarry near Riverside, California. The paths converge on an elevated viewing terrace paved with Arizona flagstone near the center of the garden. Stunning natural blocks of faceted basalt from eastern Washington lend vertical drama throughout the garden, complementing the hundreds of columnar cactus plants. The soil is mulched with one hundred tons of shiny black slate chips from the Chili Bar Slate Mine on the South Fork of the American River near Placerville, California. At the other side of the garden, the path leads through a gateway of basalt columns and onto Lotusland’s main lawn near the Topiary Garden. Both entering and exiting the Cactus Garden offer experiences that contribute to the sense of surprise and wonder that Lotusland visitors enjoy as they move from garden to garden.

To ensure that the Cactus Garden would meet our sustainable horticultural care goals, we installed subsurface drains, after establishing the rough contours of the design, to ameliorate the drainage problems posed by an underlying hardpan. Then, after the boulders were placed and the masonry construction completed, we spread a specially blended topsoil over the surface of the ground to a depth of eighteen to thirty-six inches, so the cacti could be planted in humus-rich but well-drained soil. The dark colored slate chip mulch serves to reduce weeds and retain heat in the root zone as the transplanted cacti acclimatize to their new home.

During the relocation, Lotusland inventoried and moved about 530 plants. Sigs had consistently used Backeberg’s system of classification for his collection. Our curation department sifted through the old names and updated them, using the work of the International Cactaceae Systematics Group, as contained in The Cactus Family by Ted Anderson; this task resulted in a final count of about 300 taxa. About two-thirds of these are new to the Lotusland collections. One of the most amazing aspects of Sigs’s collection is that nearly forty percent of the plants were grown from seed. He focused his efforts on the columnar cacti so the fifty-two genera in the collection are concentrated in those tribes of the cactus family that contain shrubby and tree-like forms: the Cereeae, Trichocereeae, Pachycereeae, and Browningieae. There are also some of the more unusual members of the Opuntioideae, including Austrocylindropuntia, Consolea, Miqueli-opuntia, Grusonia, and several taxa of endemic Galapagos Opuntia.

Variations on a theme of verticality

Variations on a theme of verticality

In addition to the cacti from Sigs’s collection, the Cactus Garden is a prime spot to display other cacti from the Lotusland collection, such as several species in the primitive genus Pereskia, as well as other desert-dwelling plants. There are several species of Agave, Furcraea, and Nolina plus one Yucca to add spikiness. Some tough, silvery bromeliads (Dyckia, Hechtia and Puya) are tucked among the boulders. With luck, a couple of contorted specimens of Bursera and several Baja boojums (Fouquieria columnaris) will also thrive there. One last succulent family, the Crassulaceae is represented by Graptopetalum macdougalii and an as yet unidentified Pachyphytum species. Desert willow (Chilopsis linearis) and coral trees (Eryth-rina species) will add another dimension to the skyline as they mature.

In these times of international treaties to control commercial trade in endangered species of plants and animals, it has become increasingly difficult to add new specimens of these “poster plants” to a collection or to replace examples that are nearing the end of their life-spans. Treaties require strong scientific and educational reasons to justify collecting from the wild, even when accomplished through the use of cuttings and seeds that leave the parent plants in habitat. Sigs’s cacti comprise such a collection: rare cacti initiated from a core collection of documented specimens of wild origin gathered in an environmentally conscious fashion over a seventy-year period. The potential for conservation education is immeasurable.

Sigs’s collection is the result of a life-long passion for cacti, which began with that first acquisition in 1929. Lotusland is honored to preserve the legacy of his passion in this spectacular new garden.


If You Should Like to Visit

Lotusland is located in the Montecito district of Santa Barbara and is open for tours from mid-February to mid-November by reservation only. For reservations, call 805/969-9990, Monday through Friday from 9 am to noon.