The Desert Garden at Sunnylands, as Seen on a Winter Visit to California

The Desert Garden at Sunnylands, as Seen on a Winter Visit to California

I haven’t finished unpacking from my trip to California this week, but it’s my day to post so here’s a quick look at the eye-popping garden at Sunnylands. The estate of Walter (former ambassador to the U.K.) and Leonore Annenberg, it served as a very upscale Western Camp David where presidents and royalty met for decades, and where conferences are regularly held even today. Originally 700 acres, it’s now just (haha) 200 acres – 7 miles outside of Palm Springs.  Since the Annenbergs’ deaths it’s been run by a foundation and opened to us tourists.

The residence itself is about 25,000 (!) square feet of Modernist extravagance – in the very best taste.


 I was thrilled to snag a ticket for the interior tour – $55 and worth it.  Interior design, celebrity and history-making in one mind-blowing place. My favorites were the guest rooms, with the names of the celebrities, royalty and presidents who’ve stayed there on display. I kept thinking, “Imagine!”  Some interior photos here.

Sorry to report, this is all I can show you of the amazing interior – a $40 coffee table book.

The Gardens

Thankfully we were allowed to photograph the gardens, which are described in Great Gardens of the World:

Opened in 2012, years after the couple died, the nine-acre desert garden sits in the northwest corner of California’s Sonora Desert….Sunnylands gardens are pointedly quite different from the estate’s park-like landscape, which includes eleven lakes and a private, nine-hole golf course. The gardens are composed of more than 70 native and arid-adapted plants from North and South America, Africa, and the Mediterranean. Designed by OJB Landscape Architecture, with horticultural consultant Mary Irish, they demonstrate the sustainability a lush, multi-colored garden in a desert environment. Here, mesquite, palo verde, and palo brea trees offer shaded avenues of tranquility along the gardens’ walking trails and reflecting pools. A grassy circle is traditionally a communal gathering spot for activities such as yoga and tai chi, or games for children. 

Nothing like we ever see in the East.

The Sunnylands labyrinth is a “lithocrete walking surface lined with low-growing wedelia and surrounded by mesquite trees and leucophyllum that bloom violet in the spring.” My college friend Joe Blitman is seen here walking the walk. (I’ll show you his and his husband’s stunning home in another post.)   A much more traditional part of the gardens includes water features with views of the golf course and even better, mountains in the distance.I’ll leave you with another view of the snow-capped San Jacinto Mountains, this time over a sea of California poppies. Blooming like crazy in late January!


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