Plants, Stone, California Landscapes


Posts Tagged ‘succulents’

The Ruth Bancroft Garden — Winterized

I’ve been meaning to do a long post about the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, but long posts don’t seem to fit into my schedule right now, so it’ll come in a couple of parts. I visited the garden a couple of times recently, once in late March when the garden was still winterized and again two weeks later when the garden was primped up for its open house. Very cool garden. It has what’s probably the biggest collection of succulents and cactus in Northern California and it was the garden that inspired the creation of the Garden Conservancy.

From the Ruth Bancroft Garden website:

‘By trial and error, Ruth discovered how to use succulents in the landscape and how to protect tender plants from winter rains and the occasional hard freeze. She created dynamic planting combinations by using contrasting textures, forms, and colors.

‘Ruth’s garden began to attract a great deal of attention from other gardeners and horticulturists. In 1988, Frank and Anne Cabot visited Ruth and were troubled to hear that there were no plans to preserve the garden. They were inspired to form the Garden Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving significant American gardens, and The Ruth Bancroft Garden became the first preservation project of the newly formed organization. The Garden opened to the public in the early 1990s.

Today, The Ruth Bancroft Garden, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit which owns the garden and raises funds for its preservation. The garden is protected by a conservation easement, which ensures that the property will always be a garden and will be preserved in the spirit of its founder, Ruth Bancroft. The Garden has become an outstanding example of a water-conserving garden, appropriate for our Mediterranean climate. The garden also houses important collections of aloes, agaves, yuccas, and echeverias. Aeonium ‘Glenn Davidson’, the first succulent in Ruth’s collection, is still growing in The Garden.’

It’s a pretty well known garden in the area and I had heard a lot about it. The way the Fleming garden is the Bay Area’s place to see a mature garden of natives, the Ruth Bancroft Garden is the local place to see big, mature succulents. I found it a little less impressive than I expected, but also much more funky and interesting. I was expecting something like the slick use of succulents you see from designers these days, but instead the garden has a much more organic feel, like a real garden, the creation of an obsessive gardener who would wander around with a plant in her hand trying to find a spot where there might be space and where the plant might look nice.

One of the interesting aspects of the garden is that many of its specimens are not hardy in Walnut Creek, so Ruth Bancroft outfitted them with homemade cold frames every winter. Apparently, it took her 5-6 weeks every year to get the garden ready for winter, and 2-3 days just to plan where the different cold frames should go. Pretty crazy. Showing the photos of the plants all wrapped in plastic feels a little like showing the garden with its hair in rollers, but I found it quite fascinating and unique to see the garden so winterized, and, actually, this is how the garden looked when the founder of the Garden Conservancy first visited the garden and felt compelled to found an organization to preserve it. In the oral history of the Bancroft garden (pretty interesting if you have the time), she expresses surprise that Cabot was so impressed with the garden while it was in winter mode, but personally I’m not surprised. The homemade cold frames and the giant specimens and the interesting plant textures and combinations make the garden distinctive and full of personality. You walk in and immediately know there’s no other garden like it.

— Update 12/13 — A few of my photos here were used in a French publication, PlantAExotica, looks like a good read for succulent lovers who speak French.

The Succulents of Cerro Colorado

Cerro Colorado with Elephant Tree

Cerro Colorado in the distance with Volcan las Tres Virgenes beyond it

I mentioned that we started bicycling from San Ignacio, an oasis town about half way down the Baja peninsula. Before we started riding, we spent a few days exploring the desert and checking out the plants there, and especially checking out the succulents on Cerro Colorado, a volcanic hill a few kilometers from town.

Various Succulent Plants

Closer to the hill

If you’re interested in succulents, Cerro Colorado is the place. The Center for Sonoran Desert Studies/Desert Museum did a survey and found 44 unique species, which they claim is the highest number of succulent species of any spot in the southwestern U.S. Would that then make it the highest number of any spot in the world? I don’t know, but there’s a ton of succulents there, regardless. Anita and I did our own personal survey and identified 19, which we’ll obviously have to improve before we can start leading botanical bicycle tours of Baja (now accepting reservations for winter 2031). Looking at the species list for the hill, I see that it broadly defines a succulent as just about any plant that has tissue designed for storing water. The list includes a couple of Asclepias species and a bunch of caudiciform shrubs and vines: cucumber relatives, shrubby euphorbias, a wild fig, and two species of elephant trees (Bursera). Some of those are plants I wouldn’t have considered succulents, but then I’m not a botanist, and with 24 species of cactus, it’s not exactly lacking in conventional succo’s.

Organ Pipe and Cardon

Organ Pipe and Cardon

Cardon Cactuses


Cardon Forest

More Cardones

Barrel Cactus

Barrel Cactus

I think these are two different species of barrel cactus. I lost track of all the chollas. We could tell there were several different types, but the desert museum lists eight, including hybrids. A couple were jumpers.

Cholla and Barrel Cactus

Cholla and Barrel Cactus

Slipper Plant, Pedilanthus macrocarpus

Slipper Plant, Pedilanthus macrocarpus

Fouquieria trunk with Cardon Trunk

Fouquieria Trunk with Cardon Trunk

Adams Tree, Fouquieria diguetii and Cardon Cactus, Pachycereus pringlei

Fouquieria Trunk with Organ Pipe

Agave cerulata subcerulata

Agave cerulata subcerulata

It’s probably the spiniest place I’ve ever been, but plants are spaced far enough apart that we could make our way through it as long as we occasionally pulled spiny branches out of our way. I found that walking with all those spines everywhere kept my attention always focused on my immediate area and each plant immediately in front of me, so that I was constantly looking up to discover yet another awesome specimen in front of me, over and over and over.

Elephant Tree, Bursera microphylla

Elephant Tree, Bursera microphylla

Elephant trees get the nod as my favorite plant down there. Has anyone seen or grown one in the Bay Area?

Bursera hindsiana, Red Elephant Tree Trunk

Red Elephant Tree, Bursera hindsiana

This is probably the best trunk I saw on a Red Elephant Tree while I was down there.

Limberbush, Jatropha cuneata

Limberbush, Jatropha cuneata, in the Euphorbia family

There were two kinds of Jatropha. The other one, J. cinerea, looks a lot like the mexican redbud, but with somewhat swollen-looking branches and twigs.

Palo Verde, Cercidium floridum

Palo Verde

The hill had great palo verdes. They aren’t a succulent, but they have chlorophyl and photosynthesize on their wood, which seems like justification for getting in with the succulent photos.

Palo Verde, Cercidium floridum

Palo Verde

Cerro Colorado

Cerro Colorado from the bridge near San Ignacio