Winter Is Wonderful in the Gardens of Palm Springs

No Jack Frost here.

Winter is splendid for snow, skiing and cozy cups of cocoa by the fire, but many areas of California will need to wait until spring for seasonal gardens to crawl back from the chill. Not Palm Springs, however. With more mild temps, the desert’s flora looks more spectacular then ever. Sunset recently featured “7 Striking Palm Springs Gardens to Visit,” a short guide to some of the areas best spots for soaking in nature’s glory.

Here are a few highlights:

Korakia Pensione

When his L.A.-born wife refused to move to Morocco with him in the 1920s, Scottish painter Gordon Coutts built Morocco in Palm Springs instead. Today, Coutts’ villa and a neighboring one built by actor J. Carrol Naish make up Korakia Pensione, a desert retreat where you head when you’ve had your fill of the see-and-be-seen crowd and want to unwind. Many of Coutts’ original architectural details, from a hand-carved Afghani door to Tangier tiles, are still intact. As for the grounds, they’re deeply restful; decomposed granite crunches underfoot as you walk past aloes and potted prickly pears that are silhouetted against the compound’s whitewashed, bougainvillea-topped walls.

From $199; korakia.com

Thousand Palms Oasis

The Indian Canyonsa stone’s throw from downtown Palm Springs, are the region’s famous spot to see California’s only native palm, Washingtonia filifera, in its natural habitat. But we prefer to palm-watch at Thousand Palms Oasis in Coachella Valley Preserve, about 15 miles outside of town. Stop first at the Palm House, the 1930s home of naturalist Paul Wilhelm, and get directions for the 1-mile hike that leads across a swath of desert sands straight out of Star Wars or Lawrence of Arabia. Its ending point is McCallum Grove—no mere marsh but an actual lake surrounded by dense, lush stands of the native palms. Walk the boardwalk perimeter and get lost looking up at the intricate palm canopies. Unlike manicured garden specimens, these trees stand tall with their grass skirts of dried fronds, testaments to decades of palm preservation.

Donation suggested; coachellavalleypreserve.org

Sunnylands

Almost every American president since Eisenhower has visited Sunnylands, the estate and retreat center built by media tycoon Walter Annenberg and his wife, Leonore. (President Obama has visited five times.) But its gardens transcend politics to become a shining example of sustainable landscape design. When the center expanded a few years ago, drought-mandated water restrictions prevented a continuation of the green, lawn-heavy landscape beloved by Leonore Annenberg. Instead, landscape architect James Burnett drew inspiration from the Annenbergs’ large collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings (Cézannes and van Goghs among them) to create a 9-acre canvas where plants are used almost as paint. Cactus, for example, that are usually shown off alone are massed together, creating lushness not common in the desert. You’ll want to take your time exploring—each step reveals a slightly different, hypnotizing vantage point. And luckily there’s barely a step you can take without being protected by the shaded canopy of a desert tree. Time your visit for late winter, when canary yellow flowers from palo verde trees fall on spiny barrel cactuses like yellow snowflakes.

Free admission, guided tours $40; 37977 Bob Hope Dr., Rancho Mirage; sunnylands.org

Get a preview of all 7 gardens here.

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