Gardener of Earthly Delights

Ruth Bancroft’s carefully tended cactus and succulent garden in Walnut Creek became her legacy.

Ruth Bancroft, just before her 100th birthday, in her cactus and succulent garden in Walnut Creek.
Ruth Bancroft, just before her 100th birthday, in her cactus and succulent garden in Walnut Creek.

When Ruth Bancroft was 64 years old, she got down on her hands and knees and etched tiny holes throughout a chunk of her family’s land in Walnut Creek. Into each went a small cactus, succulent or other arid-climate plant. She’d spent 20-some years acquiring such curiosities, stashing them in four-inch pots in a maze of glass and shade houses built by her husband.

Despite their glacially slow growth rates (they’re not called century plants for nothing), Ruth gave each specimen the room it needed to reach maturity — a guess, in many instances, as these were rare finds in Northern California in 1972. When she finished, tiny plants dotted three acres of mounded planting islands.

This new garden pushed every limit. Walnut Creek was too cold and wet in the winter, with soil too poorly drained, for this plant palette to thrive. She had no guarantee that these plants would survive and no assurance that she’d live to see them mature.

Ruth passed away at her home — a stone’s throw away from those mounded beds — last Nov. 17. She was 109 years old, and her garden, now 45 years old, with towering palms, walkways lined with columnar cactus, and agaves the size of trucks, represents the pinnacle of dry gardening in the West.

Ruth’s driving force was a quiet, insatiable curiosity, and she learned best through collecting. She had collected seashells throughout the 1950s and 1960s with no purpose other than to learn. Cleaned, labeled and resting on a bed of cotton, the shells were tucked away. When the collection was discovered, untouched, decades later, the California Academy of Sciences eagerly accepted tens of thousands of her shells into its permanent collection.

Cactus and succulents were hardly Ruth’s first foray into plants. Her living collections included herbs, roses and flowering shrubs. Her driveway, planted with bearded iris, became a pilgrimage site for iris enthusiasts when it erupted into bloom each spring.

But Ruth found her greatest obsession in dry-adapted plants that hailed from arid regions around the world. She drew endless inspiration from their thick stems, fleshy leaves, lethal spines, hypnotizing spirals and ethereal flowers.

Ruth had abandoned dreams of architecture and dropped out of UC Berkeley after the 1929 stock market crash, but her garden finally allowed her to explore her penchant for design. She composed plantings based on color and form. She spent all day, every day, in the garden, never applying sunscreen, rarely wearing a hat and never drinking enough water — though she did enjoy a beer for lunch and a nightly glass of sherry. For Ruth, the garden always was a place to work, and she gardened well into her 90s.

When Frank Cabot, an East Coast horticulturist, visited in 1988, he grew concerned about the garden’s long-term future and created the Garden Conservancy, a nonprofit that has now helped protect more than 80 gardens, beginning with Ruth’s.

With droughts, fires and a changing climate, Ruth’s dry garden has never been more relevant. Her three-acre plot in Walnut Creek now houses one of the largest and most mature collections of drought-tolerant plants in Northern California. If you’re in the Bay Area, be sure to go see it. Discover aloes in bloom every month of the year. Catch halos of spines glowing at dusk. Introduce yourself to the gardeners tasked with cultivating in her spirit. Each is a collector in his own right — curious birds of a feather who have found their way to Ruth’s garden.

But after you visit, go home to your own garden. The best way you can honor Ruth is to be fearless. Experiment. Get down on your own hands and knees and dig in.

Keep reading: Seminal California architect Gin Wong spent so long designing our idea of the future that it eventually became the past, but his buildings are all the better for it.

Johanna is a James Beard Award-winning author who writes mostly about plants and people.
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