Sunday, April 9, 2017

Sunnylands bedazzles with mass plantings of succulents

Sunnylands Center and Garden in Rancho Mirage, less than a half hour from downtown Palm Springs, is one of my favorite public gardens in California. While botanical gardens are typically focused on showcasing the diversity of plants from specific geographic regions, the public gardens at Sunnylands are like a giant living canvas. In fact, landscape architect James Burnett was very much inspired by Impressionist paintings. It's all about light, forever shifting and changing; and about color, vibrant and alive.

Patio of the café at the Sunnylands Center

I was happy I got a chance to re-visit Sunnylands during my whirlwind trip to Palm Springs in early March.

Reflecting Pool, golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) and palo verde (Parkinsonia 'Desert Museum')

Sunnylands is a sprawling 200 acre estate built in the 1960s by Walter and Leonore Annenberg, ultra wealthy philanthropists, art collectors and diplomats, and now managed by the non-profit Annenberg Foundation Trust. Sunnylands has a long history as a venue for informal political meetings at the highest level. Eight U.S. presidents have stayed at Sunnylands; President Obama held informal talks with Chinese President Xi Jingping in 2013.

Sunnylands Center was built after Leonore's death 2009 but it is in the location she had envisioned for a visitor center. Nine acres of gardens surround the Center. The plant palette is deliberately limited: only 70 species of desert or desert-adapted plants. But the number of individual plants is staggering: it's said that over 53,000 invididual plants were put in the ground. Nurseries in Southern California and Arizona had spent years growing them specifically for this massive project. Read the articles listed at the end of this post for fascinating insights into this endeavor. And check out this short video to see jaw-dropping time-lapse footage of the garden construction.

According to the Gardens Guide:
The Gardens are intended as mindful space, where visitors can wander along paths, watch wildlife, relax on benches, sit by reflecting pools, or walk the labyrinth. Plants are arranged in single-specimen beds, which are layered to create visual interest with color, texture, and light. The desert’s seasonal bloom cycle contributes to an ever-changing landscape, assuring new experiences on each visit.
We began our exploration with the Botanic Walk along Entry Drive just inside the entrance:

Yucca desmettiana

Agave parryi

Echinocactus grusonii

Apparently critters like to munch on Agave geminiflora, hence the wire cages. And even those are more stylish than anything I've ever built for my own garden.




Agave parryi

Agave americana


Aloe 'Blue Elf'




Hesperaloe parviflora 'Brakelights'

Agave parryi


Now we're about to enter the terrace gardens west of the Sunnylands Center:









Aloe 'Blue Elf'

Agave americana

Euphorbia resinifera

Agave angustifolia 'Variegata'



Aloe 'Blue Elf'


I understand that some people might not like Sunnylands because the design is so formal, controlled, and regimented. These aren't aspects I usually seek out either. But the sheer scale of these gardens and the unforgettable visuals that are part of it are truly unforgettable.


FURTHER READING:



RELATED POST:

Index: Trip to Palm Springs, March 2017

20 comments:

  1. It is so odd to see these plants used this way, planted in such regimented rows, in a style I normally associate with bedding annuals in a park-like setting. But then I saw that picture third from the bottom, with the curving row of barrel cactus and Agaves and Ocotillo(?) That appeals to me. I like the bare trees with white-ish bark, too.

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    1. I hadn't made the connection to annual bedding plants. You right, of course, that's what some of the drifts look like!

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  2. Way back when I first planted up our front garden (2006) I tried to do something similar. Phormium, Cordylines, Canna, Yucca, etc. it was fabulous, until we got a couple of bad winters. So I do like the formal massed style, as long as the plants are good, and these obviously are.

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    1. It's the kind of look I'm immediately drawn to but would never have the discipline to sustain in my own garden. I wonder what it means psychologically speaking, ha ha. That I secretly desire order but will always give in to chaos?

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  3. Yay! I'm so glad to see something positive about Sunnylands. I think it's great using native, desert plants in a formal setting instead of the usual, weedy-looking "naturalistic", jungly-jumble style of native plant gardens.

    You sure got some good shots capturing the light and the shadows, the contrasting textures, shapes and colors. Wow! Good for you!

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    1. I didn't know that Sunnylands has had its share of negative reviews. I, too, admire the vision and determination to pull off something this ambitious. A formal garden within a desert context.

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  4. It's a bit too orderly for my taste but I do appreciate the opportunity to see massed plantings of beautiful specimens that might otherwise get lost in a more naturalistic landscape. I loved the video.

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    1. I'd never be able to have a garden that formal and orderly myself, but I love how it interprets the desert environment in a very unique way.

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  5. Yet another lovely place to visit! (I'm planning to drop by Civano in a month.) Thank you, Gerhard.

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I'm very grateful that Southern California and Arizona have so many plant-centric destinations to visit!

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  6. Beautiful, I'm not keen on the grid of plants. It is inspiring by the sheer number of plants. I think I like it except for the golden barrels in a grid, they need to be randomly scattered for me.

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    1. Brian, that was my initial reaction as well but now I love the rigid geometry.

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  7. I love the formal style but would never have the discipline for it. Enjoyed seeing it through your camera.

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    1. This would never ever work for me at home, but I love it as a public installation. Horticultural art on a large scale!

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  8. Amazing place, I can see why it would divide opinion, like others, I think some bits work better than others, but really like it.
    Great photos as always.

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    1. I applaud the powers that be at Sunnylands who made it possible for James Burnett and his team to implement their vision. All too often corporate narrowminded prevails, resulting in the horticultural equivalent of hospital food.

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  9. I really need to get my keister down to Socal --it would be so fun to photograph in this garden , with it's nod to Victorian bedding-out schemes.Love your photos !

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    1. Your reference to Victorian gardens made the proverbial lightbulb go off in my head. YES!!! In a desert context, and using desert-adapted plants, it's even more intriguing.

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  10. Beautiful photos Gerhard. The photo of the Agave variegata with the golden barrels and post-type cactus (fourth from the bottom) is beautiful. One thing a formal garden does is make you appreciate the architectural shapes of each element.

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    1. Sunnylands continues to hold my interest because the big views are captivating AND there are so many smaller self-contained vignettes that are beautiful in themselves. Lots to explore!

      While we were there, there was work going on along busy Bob Hope Drive. It looks like they're removing beds planted with something else and installing masses of succulents (surprise). Looking forward to seeing the result on my next visit.

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