A Painting Comes to Life
The west windows of Sunnylands Center present a magnificent vista of the 10,000-foot-plus San Jacinto Mountains looming above palo verde trees. Landscape architect James Burnett used Vincent van Gogh's Olive Trees of 1889 as inspiration for this masterpiece view of the Center's unique gardens.
Burnett carefully crafted nine acres of desert, designing 1.25 miles of walking paths that meander through more than 70 species of native and arid-adapted plants from North and South America, Africa, and the Mediterranean area. The gardens were carefully conceived to appear different in every season with variations that create a memorable sensory experience.
"We like desert plants for their beauty, sculptural habits, and color," Burnett says. "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."
See or print a Gardens Guide here.
A Healing Space
Burnett's signature designs are habitable and sensitive, with shade, quiet, and natural elements that appeal to the senses. Twin reflecting pools filled with stones flank the rear windows of the Center and its patios. To the west, a labyrinth winds around trailing smokebush (dalea greggii), creating a contemplative and quiet space.
Throughout the Gardens, Leonore Annenberg's love of the joyful color yellow is punctuated in springtime when the palo verde trees (Parkinsonia x "desert museum") erupt with blooms. Thornless mesquite and palo brea trees provide protective shade to arid-adapted plants. Geometric grids of yellow cacti spines become backlit against the dramatic desert sunsets and sunrises, punctuating the shifting light. A circular lawn behind the Center building creates a gathering space for a wide variety of events. And throughout the Gardens are serene places to sit, relax, and enjoy nature.
Following Leonore Annenberg's vision, Burnett designed the Gardens with environmental sensitivity. The drought-tolerant and native plants produce water savings of more than one million gallons per year. The Gardens are designed to use 20 percent of the water district allotment for the property.
Native California desert wildlife find refuge in the Gardens. Visitors may see cottontail and jackrabbits, desert iguanas, monarch butterflies, hawks, and vermillion flycatchers.