A Tribute to Ruth Bancroft (1908 - 2017)



The Cactus and Succulent world has lost one of its greats … Ruth (Petersson) Bancroft passed on November 26th, at the age of 109. Yes … you read that correctly … 109! Ruth’s work and inspiration lives on in the spectacular Walnut Creek, California garden bearing her name.

Ruth Petersson was born on the East Coast, but grew up from an early age in Berkeley, California. She later attended UC Berkeley, studying Architecture. However, the Great Depression led her in a different direction, teaching High School in the 1930s. She married her husband, Philip Bancroft, in 1939, and raised three children on the 400-acre family Walnut and Pear orchard in Walnut Creek.

Ruth Petersson was born on the East Coast, but grew up from an early age in Berkeley, California. She later attended UC Berkeley, studying Architecture. However, the Great Depression led her in a different direction, teaching High School in the 1930s. She married her husband, Philip Bancroft, in 1939, and raised three children on the 400-acre family Walnut and Pear orchard in Walnut Creek.


Ruth evidently always had gardening interests, but began to take a particular interest in succulents in the early 1950s. The family car was often full of succulents upon returning from vacation trips to Southern California, adding to her growing potted collection around the house.

In 1971, with suburbs encroaching and the Walnut and Pear orchards in decline, Phil Bancroft offered the grove area in front of their home to Ruth, to plant out her ever expanding collection. Ruth enlisted Lester Hawkins (of Western Hills Nursery fame) to help design out a 2 acre garden for her succulents in the hard adobe soil, cleared of old Walnut trees. This was a substantial undertaking for Ruth, who at age 62, was starting with a blank slate! Soil was mounded to improve drainage and rock quarried from nearby Mt Diablo was used as mulch. Her potted plants, nothing from larger than a 1-gallon container, were laid out, in Ruth’s words “a rather willy-nilly fashion.” Disaster struck the following year in the form of a hard Winter freeze following heavy rains, killing many of her newly planted specimens. Walnut Creek’s climate is Mediterranean with extreme Summer heat and solar radiation, followed by normally wet winters (15-20” of rain) with regular periodic temperature dips to the mid-20s.


Ruth was not to be defeated though, marking the event as a learning experience. She took detailed notes of how each species performed (or not) under differing conditions and continued to do so in subsequent years. She added a self-designed Folly and protection structures for the more tender species to survive future severe weather swings. A greenhouse was built and Brian Kemble was hired in 1980 to focus on Aloes for her collection. Ruth also added drought-tolerant foundation trees and other structural specimens to improve her garden design, and it grew into an impressive collection over the next 15 years.

Word spread of its design uniqueness and beauty. After a 1988 visit recommended by Penelope Hobhouse, noted East Coast horticulturist Frank Cabot and his wife, Anne developed the idea of a “Garden Conservancy” … with goals similar to those of the Nature Conservancy, but with a focus on preserving notable private gardens for posterity. Frank and Anne presented their idea to Ruth, who at that point had reached her 80th birthday. Ruth was enthusiastic! The promise of her work being preserved and providing education and inspiration to others about dry gardening was tantalizing. She could continue to work her garden and know her plants would be maintained in the future. Legal arrangements were made, and the Ruth Bancroft Garden became the first (of now many) notable private gardens to be preserved through the Garden Conservancy organization.


I came to know Mrs. Bancroft in late 1989, while I lived in the neighboring community of Concord. At the time, I belonged to both the then Oakland-based California Cactus and Succulent Society, and the San Francisco Succulent and Cactus Society. Fellow SFSCS member Kaye Rosso had solicited for members who might be interested in becoming a docent for the then newly established Ruth Bancroft Garden Conservancy Garden. I was the only other SFSCS member who lived nearby, and was excited to volunteer. Ruth played an integral part in much of the original docent training organized by Richard Turner. She projected a special gleam in her eye when talking about her plants to us docent trainees. And those plants! No longer able to drive her station wagon to SOCAL on her own, plants began arriving almost daily via UPS. She continued working in the garden almost daily. Upon showing the garden to my own mother in the late 1990s, we encountered Ruth (a petite woman, then almost 90) on a hot day, jumping on a shovel in the hard adobe soil. Her response to my concerns about the risks of her trying to dig in the cement-like adobe was “I had the sprinklers on yesterday to try and soften it a bit.” No doubt, that determination helped her survive to 109. Goodbye, Ruth … and thanks for the inspiration!



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