Montecito garden finds ways to adapt during pandemic
Like the rare exotic plants that flourish in Ganna Walska Lotusland, the renowned Montecito botanical garden is surviving.
Not that it has been easy.
“It (the pandemic) has caused a severe financial burden,” Rebecca Anderson, the garden’s new executive director, told the News-Press last week as she walked on paths through the diverse species, great and small.
As the sun burned through the morning overcast, Ms. Anderson said Lotusland lost money because of a decrease in visitors and the cancellation of fundraising events during the pandemic.
“We’ve experienced a million dollars shortfall in revenue,” Ms. Anderson said, noting that the garden had to lay off a third of its staff.
But the garden, which reopened in May and is dedicated to saving plants from extinction, has found successful ways to ensure its own survival and serve the community. That has meant finding new ways to provide traditional programming and raise money for the 100% privately funded garden.
There has been success. Ms. Anderson said an online auction exceeded expectations and raised $400,000.
And she noted there is a renewed popularity for botanical gardens during the pandemic and added that Lotusland is safe for visitors.
“You may be in the garden with 40 people on 37 acres. We feel there’s extreme social distancing,” Ms. Anderson said as she walked toward Lotusland’s Japanese Garden.
Ms. Anderson came to Lotusland in 2016 as its development director and became interim executive director in December. Lotusland recently named the San Diego native, who attended Santa Barbara High School, as its permanent executive director.
“My childhood was with two parents who were educators and former hippies,” Ms. Anderson said. She explained her parents’ background inspired her fascination with gardens and nature in general.
Ms. Anderson, who attended Santa Barbara City College, earned her bachelor’s at UC Santa Cruz. She also has a master’s in organizational management at Antioch University.
After UC Santa Cruz, Ms. Anderson returned to Santa Barbara to start her career with nonprofits. She oversaw the teen programs at Girls Inc. of Santa Barbara. She also served as the development director at Child Abuse Listening Mediation and the Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara. She was the manager of annual giving for Cottage Health programs.
Her fundraising experience set the stage for her arrival at Lotusland, where she sees her job as supporting staff and volunteers to do their best work.
Ms. Anderson noted the garden’s earlier closure during the pandemic allowed staff a chance to make improvements. After the reopening, she realized the pandemic meant the garden couldn’t have its traditional field trips with groups of fourth graders.
“So we designed a new way for students and their families to come,” she said about the garden’s junior botanist program. “Students are given an activity guide.”
Students use that guide as they lead their parents and siblings around Lotusland. Afterward, the youths receive a succulent plant.
“It’s wonderful,” Ms. Anderson said. “Like everything with COVID-19, we’re discovering some of these adaptations are pushing us into places that are really innovative and new and important.”
The News-Press learned more about the program from Nicole Evans, Lotusland’s education and community engagement manager.
“Fourth-grade kids are about 10, and they’re generally at an age where they’re excited to show mastery of skills like reading and math,” Dr. Evans said as she stood next to Euphorbia ingens, a succulent species outside Lotusland’s administration building.
She said the kids are given a name tag, which includes their “job title” as junior botanist, and guide their families through activities around Lotusland. Afterward, the youths answer questions about plants at the garden’s visitors center.
Dr. Evans also noted Lotusland has expanded its online presence. “We’ve created a whole education portal on our website.”
She said the garden isn’t able to offer a virtual tour at this time, but is looking at funding to make that possible by adding Wi-Fi in the garden.
Back on the Lotusland paths, Ms. Anderson pointed to signs of technology. They’re signs with QR codes that visitors can scan with their smartphones to learn about the plants.
Another sign is one of growth. Lotusland recently completed a pavilion in its Japanese Garden, where visitors can sit and enjoy the beauty.
“It has become a place where people can do reflections, journaling, painting and photography,” Ms. Anderson said.
Visitors and staff agree the scenery is worth the attention.
“The plants are looking really good,” Tyler Diehl, director of gardens and facilities, told the News-Press during a short break from doing some pruning. “We’ve had really good rainfall during the last couple years, so it’s made a difference in all the plants and how they were growing.”
One of Lotusland’s missions is to preserve endangered plant species, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to nickname Lotusland “Jurassic Park.” The garden is known around the world for its important collection of cycads, fern-like plants that date back to the age of the dinosaurs.
“Cycads are the most threatened group of plants on the planet,” Paul Mills, curator of living collections, told the News-Press as he walked up to a tall cycad. “Some say they’re the most threatened organisms on the plants.
“We have five different species of cycads that are believed to be extinct in the wild,” Mr. Mills said, noting Lotusland is working with various groups to promote the plants’ survival.
Ms. Anderson praised Mr. Mills’ work of growing cycads to ensure their survival. “We’ve become a breeding ground, if you will, for plants that no longer exist in their wild habitat. Once they’re created and protected here, Paul will share them with institutions across the country.”
She said Lotusland has more than 3,500 plant species. “It’s our responsibility to protect and preserve these threatened species.”