Sunnylands: California’s Newest Garden Jewel!

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Sunnylands Center and Gardens

When I told my friend, Ellen, who writes the amazing literary travel blog, Gold Boat Journeys, we were heading to Palm Springs for the weekend, she gave me a hot tip: Visit Sunnylands!  I had never heard of these gardens, or their home at the Annenberg historic estate (a mid-century home, cottages and 11 man-made lakes on 200 acres in Rancho Mirage. Hope to tour it next visit!). So, on our way out of town, we dropped by. The nine-acre garden has only been open since March, and is all about drought tolerance! Palm Springs and the greater Coachella Basin–basically a giant, over-watered desert–is the perfect place to model low-water plants.

I don’t mean to shout, but THE PLACE WAS AWESOME!

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There’s a fabulous, LEEDS-cerified visitors’ center that you walk through, open the large glass doors at the back and step out upon this expansive, circular lawn, which is used for special events.  Those are the San Jacinto mountains in the distance. Then you can mosey through the curving paths and get totally lost among the geometric plantings of more than 50 arid-landscape plants from North and South America, Africa and the Mediterranean–more than 53,000 individual plants in all. Click HERE for their complete plant guide. The best news is that it’s free to visit!

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There are two reflecting pools…

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and this amazing labyrinth filled in with Smokebush, and acasia, palo verde and mesquite trees. The place can bake, so the shade was key to these spaces.


They had several areas devoted strictly to cacti. (Yes, this place really looks this amazing! And they offer tours, too.)

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The garden, designed by landscape designer James Burnett, was inspired by the Annenberg’s collection of Impressionistic art. I didn’t get that, though, since it was so visually formal, and I think of the Impressionists as looser in their interpretation of nature. Oh well. Who cares. The garden, with birds and butterflies flitting all over the place, was truly peaceful and meditative.  It’s designed so plants are in bloom year-round, and you could see we just missed the aloes (need to visit in late winter!), but the palo verde trees were busting out and their fallen petals, which turn a deeper shade on the ground, created their own impact. Word is, Burnett especially digs the color yellow.

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They had all the drought-tolerant rock stars–Artichoke Agave, Ocotillo, Century Plant, Golden and Red Barrel Cacti, Lady Slippers, on and on and on. The Red Yucca were all over the place. Often, you don’t get to see those planted in such mass where they create such a powerful blast of pink. The best thing about this garden is that the drought-tolerant and native plants produce water savings of more than one million gallons per year, according to the Web site. The gardens are designed to use 20 percent of the water district allotment for the property.

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I have several Red Yucca plants like this in containers in my garden, and they are a hummingbird favorite.


Along the side gardens, things loosened up bit, especially with the large wildflower garden, packed with Desert Marigold, Desert Primrose, Chia, Sand Verbena and Salt Bush.

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Burnett planted oodles of Desert Milkweed. Lots of happy Monarch butterflies floating around the place. The Tarantula wasps were imbibing their nectar as well.

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“We like desert plants for their beauty, sculptural habits, and color,” Burnett is quoted saying on their Web site. “We looked at how various plant materials work together, such as some of the aloes with the golden barrel (cactus). Everything in concept was designed to use massing in hundreds of plants instead of small combinations, so we could sweep color on a very large scale.”


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This garden is worth a horticultural mecca! In case you intend to visit Palm Springs, we stayed at a fantastic, small boutique hotel right in the middle of the downtown (about 20 minutes from this garden). Built in the 40s,
The Chase hotel has spacious, reasonably priced rooms around a lively courtyard, pool, grapefruit trees, shuffleboard court and patio tables. (And they are dog-friendly!) You can find even hipper versions of this renovated, MCM hotel, as well as some with other architectural themes (Click HERE for super helpful Web site.), but this place was so friendly and comfortable!

If you love gardens–especially those that are both beautiful and use drought-tolerant plants–you must add this to the top of your must-visit list!

6 thoughts on “Sunnylands: California’s Newest Garden Jewel!

  1. Nice visit. Funny, but in a book on Palm Spgs MCM architecture, the Annenberg estate was the most inappropriate land use demonstration in it by far, especially since the Annenbergs claimed they were such land stewards. Like predecessors of today’s green-washers.

    Looks like they are doing something nice with the land, though I wonder how much of all that lake / pond area still remains. Nice selection of plants, though some of it seems too intensively planted. But nice design juxtapositions you show…relaxed areas vs. highly-structured areas.

    1. @DesertDweller,

      This new garden is just a small piece of the several-hundred-acre Annenberg estate, which seems like a water-use nightmare, with fake lakes and a giant golf course. But according to their literature, they are making changes over there as well. I think the dense planting was for the instant-garden effect for their opening. Will be interesting to see how it fills in. I didn’t want to touch the politics of the place, but interesting to see the right-wingers get progressive!

  2. Thank you for this fabulous tour! I live in Santa Fe nm, and a few of the plants shown here, but it’s a real joy to see them en masse and with the cacti – thank you again:D – aleta

  3. Lovely garden tour. Although I must admit i’m not that keen on the rows of agaves etc, prefer a much more naturalistic presentation. However the execution is stunning.

    1. @gazandmark You are right. The geometric style is quite buttoned up. Guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

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