Close your eyes and picture “the desert,” and you are unlikely to conjure visions of vibrant wildflower fields, bubbling water features, or butterflies flitting beneath the canopy of lush shade trees. Yet one of the area’s most prominent properties — one that has been commended by the American Society of Landscape Architects for its sustainable design and ongoing water conservation efforts — embraces this seemingly implausible, more verdant, side of our valley.
Tucked behind pink walls in Rancho Mirage, Sunnylands Center & Gardens houses more than 53,000 arid-adapted plants, representing about 70 species and the entire Pantone colorway. The 9-acre garden, designed by the Office of James Burnett (a team that’s also responsible for major public parks in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston), takes inspiration from the original estate owners’ prized collection of impressionist and postimpressionist paintings.
Built in 1966 and expanded in the early aughts, Sunnylands was the winter home of Walter and Leonore Annenberg — entrepreneurs, ambassadors, and philanthropists who regularly hosted icons of entertainment and global politics. Among their vast and varied art collection were 53 works on canvas and paper by the likes of Monet, Matisse, Van Gogh, Picasso, and Renoir, now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. So meaningful were these masterworks to Leonore that she collaborated with the Met to create full-scale reproductions so the collection could live on in its former home at Sunnylands. She also directed landscape architect Burnett in the 2000s to model the gardens after the short, thick brushstrokes that typify the impressionist style.
The gardens opened to the public in March 2012. They are free to visit, though the center is closed now for summer; it reopens Sept. 14. For a self-guided tour, bring your earbuds and tune into any of five “audio walk” episodes, available at sunnylands.com. If you prefer being regaled by a naturalist guide in person, purchase a ticket for a formal walking or shuttle tour. (Plan well in advance, as Sunnylands events book up fast.)