Sunnylands, a sprawling public garden in Palm Springs, CA, offers a healthy dose of global history along with its cacti, roses, and other well-designed plantings.
Sunnylands was the home of Leanore and Walter Annenberg. Walter’s family business was Triangle Publications based in Philadelphia. In the early days of television, Walter created the first TV Guide, as well as Seventeen Magazine.
But winters get cold and gray in Philadelphia, so Leanore and Walter bought a place in sunny Rancho Mirage near Palm Springs and named it Sunnylands. Walter became influential in national politics and eventually was named the U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James in the United Kingdom. Leanore was the Chief of Protocol under the Reagan administration.
As a result, eight presidents have stayed or dined at Sunnylands, as well as numerous international leaders. Queen Elizabeth had lunch here and before becoming king, Prince Charles visited twice. The U.S. Supreme Court has held retreats here and so on, earning Sunnylands the nickname “Camp David of the West.”
That was in the 1960s, not necessarily a time when gardeners, landscape designers, and property owners were overly concerned with the environment, invasive species, or water consumption. The Annenbergs originally developed 200 acres, mostly covered in water consuming grasses and other plantings.
However, in recent years, property managers have adapted many of those original designs, offering much to be learned for visiting gardeners interested in desert landscaping. In 2011, the visitors center and gardens earned LEED Gold certification.
THE SUNNYLAND GARDENS
Lush blue palo verde trees (Parkinsonia florida) provide a vivid canopy throughout the property with a delicate yellow glow in the early spring and much-needed protection from the sun for visitors in the warmest months. Note: Sunnylands is closed from June through mid-September when the heat makes exploring outdoors unwise.
The public space includes four gardens and 53,000 plants covering nine acres designed by the firm of landscape architect James Burnett. Guests arrive via a winding roadway that passes alongside a field with more than 40 species of arid wildflowers.
From fall through spring, the lavender blooms of the freeform Texas barometer bush (Leucophyllum frutescens) complement the disciplined rows and spiky points of the artichoke agave. California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) and desert Canterbury bells (Phacelia campanularia) create a colorful backdrop for the butterflies attracted by more than 500 desert milkweed (Asclepias subulate).
The largest and most intricately designed is the West Garden, accessed via the visitor center. A wall of glass opens onto the spacious terrace exposing a magnificent view of the San Jacinto Mountains beyond. It was a cool day in March with a rare rain shower when we visited, which promised beautiful blooms in April. But the showers added an unexpected depth to the many golden barrel cacti, the Agave desmettiantas, and the delicate yellow blossoms of African bulbine. Fortunately, an audio tour introduced us to the many arid plantings that we had not encountered before.
Twin reflecting basins designed to maximize the sound of flowing water create a sense of peace and belonging. It is here, adjacent to the reflecting pools, that you’ll find the Friendship Bench. It is a replica of the redwood bench that President Obama presented to President Xi Jinping of China during their summit here in 2013.
As we enjoyed a light lunch at the Sunnylands Café, we were joined by a roadrunner on the terrace. It was such a treat for visitors from around the world in the café with us who had never seen a roadrunner before.
Roadrunners are among the many birds to be found at Sunnylands. In his original planning of the estate, Walter Annenberg wanted to create a sanctuary for native birds of the region. The 11 manmade lakes on the property, all lined in recent years to prevent seepage, were created in large part to attract migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway. Free bird walks and other ornithology programs are offered from November through April.
Walter Annenberg so loved birds, and particularly songbirds that feed on cactus flowers, that he installed a microphone in a cactus garden near their home on the property. The natural sound of birds was broadcast live throughout the 25,000 square foot home.
TOUR THE HOME
That’s one of the adorable anecdotes you’ll learn on a tour of the home. While admission to the gardens is always free, there is a charge to tour the home and tickets must be purchased in advance.
But it is here that you’ll see a portion of the couple’s extensive art collection, including Rodins, Picassos, and a Matisse. A colorful selection of bromeliad fills one of the indoor gardens. Outdoors, stroll through Leanore’s rose garden, searching for those she bred and named for both Barbara and Laura Bush, among other well-known friends.
And take note of the olive trees throughout the private property and golf course. The oil is bottled and sold in the gift shop, a wonderful souvenir of your visit to this remarkable home and gardens.
WHEN YOU GO
Joshua Tree National Park is about an hour’s drive from Sunnylands, a bonus destination for those inspired by cacti and other desert-thriving plants. Besides the namesake Joshua tree – a large succulent that blooms in spring – the Cholla Cactus Garden and nearby Ocotillo Patch are of greatest interest to gardeners. A wooden boardwalk winds through the stand that also showcases bright yellow desert senna and Schott’s indigo bush, among other colorful blooms. Be careful not to touch the teddy bear cholla. The plant’s painful spine is not a memory you want from this vacation.
It’s important to remember that you must bring your own water, food, and other resources into the park. While there are water bottle refill stations in several locations, there are no restaurants, stores, or similar services within the park.
Learn more about gardening with desert plants at the Moorten Botanical Garden, a private arboretum that features more than 3,000 varieties of cactus and other plants that thrive in arid conditions. South African aloe, agave, and colorful Bombax ceiba are included in the small, but globally encompassing one-acre garden. Bring your credit card because the nursery and gift shop require your attention.
Shield’s Date Farm is another interesting destination for gardeners and foodies fascinated with dates. While we were interested in sampling date flavored ice cream and other goodies at the café, the title of the movie playing in the theater caught our attention – “The Romance and Sex Life of a Date.” Yep, everything you want to know about cultivating this yummy fruit. A walk through the garden beyond, which requires an admission fee, allows you to get up close and personal with date trees.
WHERE TO STAY
You’ll have ample opportunity to immerse yourself in the early heyday of Palm Springs in the numerous mid-century modern boutique hotels and small inns of the Coachella Valley.
We stayed at the vivid Paloma Resort Hotel in Cathedral City, which was once a beauty retreat owned by the Elizabeth Arden Corporation. The bungalows, suites, and standard rooms are decorated in mid-century décor and painted in vibrant desert colors. There’s a pool and spa, and a historic Spanish restaurant that offers an excellent tapas menu. Ask about the historic date palm grove that remains on the property.
You might also like the Movie Colony Hotel, once a favorite of the Hollywood celebrities who made Palm Springs their second home. Many of the original features have been preserved or restored.
Of course, there are plenty of well-known brands to choose from if you’re a loyalty member. But for something different, try a vacation rental at the Dinah Shore Estate or if you’re a Parrothead, there’s also a Margaritaville.
For more ideas and information, visit www.visitpalmsprings.com.
Featured image: A Sunnylands garden / Bruce Meyer
A travel writer from Kansas City, Missouri, Diana Lambdin Meyer is an award-winning member of the Society of American Travel Writers and Midwest Travel Journalists.