Fall at Ruth Bancroft Garden

Last Saturday I drove to Walnut Creek, about an hour away, to attend the fall plant sale at Ruth Bancroft Garden (RBG). If you missed my post, click here to catch up. After I’d picked out the plants I wanted to buy, I took a stroll through the garden to do some exploring.

While we don’t have the flashy fall foliage other parts of the country have, the signs of fall were were unmistakable. The prickly pears were covered with fruit, and many—like the one in the first photo—were dropping fruit. If you’re in the East Bay this Wednesday and have time in the morning, join RBG curator Brian Kemble on a fruit tasting tour. You’ll get a chance to sample prickly pear and other cactus fruits.

Prickly pear (Opuntia sp.) with fruit
In Spanish, the prickly pear fruits are called “tunas”
The prickly pears weren’t the only cactus bearing fruit. This cereus (similar to the queen of the night that bloomed in our garden this summer) sported some pretty blue fruits.
Flower petals from the kapok or silk floss tree (Ceiba speciosa) adorning the golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii)

The garden was decorated with scarecrows for the fall festival that took place on Sunday. These scarecrows added a completely unexpected touch to the succulent wonderland that is Ruth Bancroft Garden.

Scarecrow next to a large Agave americana ‘Marginata’ that could be a giant creature living at the bottom of the ocean
This scarecrow was inspired by Ruth Bancroft herself. Check out the huge clump of foxtail agave (Agave attenuata) to the left of it.
Scarecrow with a message

Another sign of fall: strange fruit forming on some eucalyptus trees. I’m a complete novice when it comes to eucalyptus, so I have no idea what species this is.

Eucalyptus with weird fruit

The strangest plant I saw was a Brunsvigia josephinae, or cadelabra lily, an amaryllis relative from South Africa. It was done blooming but the giant star-shaped structure was still there, with seed pods at the tips.

Brunsvigia josephinae

The echeverias have finished blooming for the summer, but their rosettes look so much like flowers that you might think they’re in bloom year round.

A ruffled echeveria cultivar RBG calls ‘Lace’
Echeveria ‘Lace’

This time I remembered to take a few photos of gasterias planted in the ground. For some reason, I seem to ignore gasterias even though many of them are quite beautiful, with a completely unique look.

Gasteria excelsa, superficially resembling an aloe
This gasteria was simply labeled “Gasteria variegated.' I love the way is has started to spiral.

RBG has dozens of aloe species, not only the common ones but also many rarities. This is Aloe elgonica from Kenya, which I had missed on previous visits. I love the pastel coloration and the “toothy” leaf margins.

Aloe elgonica, not often seen

I forgot to check the tag for this aloe but its small size and cheery flowers played nicely off the larger agave.

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Blooming aloe (unknown species) next to what might be Agave celsii var. albicans

Aloes come in all sizes. The one in the next two photos is Aloe speciosa, a tree aloe that can grow to 18 ft.

111008_rbg_117 111008_rbg_Aloe-speciosa
Aloe speciosa with two agave flower stalks in the background

Since RBG has so many agaves, you will always find some in bloom. Most agaves are monocarpic. This means that the rosette will die after flowering because it puts all of its energy into producing that gigantic flower stalk. Even small agave species with a rosette, say, 1 ft. across can have a flower stalk that is 10-12 ft. tall.

Two agave flower stalks seen through a third flower stalk that broke in the middle because of its weight
Agave americana ‘Marginata’ with a broken flower stalk. Removing this specimen is quite a chore, considering that it’s easily 6 ft. tall by 10 ft. wide.

RBG’s agave collection is very impressive. It’s fun reading up on relatively uncommon species and then then seeing them “in the flesh” on your next visit. But even the more common species, like the ones in the next couple of photos, are stunning when grown well—which is definitely the case here.

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Foxtail agave (Agave attenuata) with fan aloe (Aloe plicatilis) on the right
Queen Victoria agave (Agave victoria-reginae), a perennial crowd pleaser—easy to understand when you see an older specimen like this one
A variegated version of Queen Victoria agave (Agave victoria-reginae ‘Variegata’)
One of my favorite agaves, Agave parryi, growing at the base of an impressive ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata), which isn’t a palm at all but a giant caudex-forming succulent from Mexico
These Agave parryi were sooooo blue
What a beautiful shape!

RBG has hundreds of cacti species in their collection. Not all of them are photogenic and others I’ve covered in previous posts (1 2 3 4), but here are a few that jumped out at my this time—thank heavens not literally, like a jumping cholla might.

Mammillaria geminispina, a small clump-forming species from central Mexico
111008_rbg_Cleistocactus-hyalacanthus Sempervivum-arachnoideum-Cebenese
Cleistocactus hyalacanthus, a columnar cactus from Bolivia and Argentina, with a spectacular expanse of tiny cobweb sempervivums (Sempervivum arachnoideum 'Cebenese')
Cleistocactus hyalacanthus backlit by the morning sun

I started this post with photos of cactus fruit, and I want to end it with some cactus flowers. I was happy to find a couple of cacti that were still in bloom. And they are real beauties!

Astrophytum ornatum, or star cactus, from central Mexico
Parodia magnifica, or ball cactus, from southern Brazil

Soon volunteers at RBG will start to cover the succulents that are frost-tender and/or would rot if they had full exposure to our winter rains. Check this post for more details.


  1. Beautiful as always. I'm a plant toucher, and this is definitely a place I'd need to keep my hands in my pockets I think. ;-)

    One criticism: You forgot to "step back" and show us some wider shots. I'd love to see what some of these beds look like -- plant combinations, textures, etc.

  2. Alan, funny you should be saying that you'd need to keep your hands in your pockets. I had a conversation about that very thing with another plant shopper. I said that I find most succulents irresistible and want to touch them, and she agreed. Of course at that point I was already bleeding from a stab wound inflicted by an Agave stricta!

    I know *exactly* what you mean about wider shots. I had every intention of including wide shots in my post but the light was so contrasty that the ones I did take were just horrible and couldn't be used. I will go back on an overcast day when I'll be able to take photos that actually have detail.

  3. I would so love to visit the Ruth Bancroft gardens someday, ever since you featured it on one of year blogs (the one with winter protection all over their specimens). Gorgeous garden full of beautiful succulents! Wish we could grow more succulents here so easily too!

  4. You have said how wonderfully scented the night blooming cacti are, how about the ones in the daytime? Or can you get close enough to smell them? ;")

  5. Becky, hmmm, I don't think the flowers of night-blooming cacti have any particular smell. You must be thinking of something else. I've never smelled a cactus flower that was particularly fragrant, although I'm sure there are some.

  6. Wonderful photos buddy. I love the scarecrows, very cool. Those clumping white Mammi's are so beautiful. I saw a lot at Huntingtons. Stan was like, I didn't know cactus could be white. You need some of those. LOL And hey you need to come over and get some Parryi. Awesome post!

  7. Oh yeah, my cereus fruit is turning pink. I have caught some before they burst and dry out. They are sooooo yummy. I think I will do a little post on them.

  8. Candy, let's definitely trade!! My Cereus hildmannianus has three fruits on it. They've gotten larger and are now turning purple. I look forward to trying them.

  9. Cool let me know a good weekend for you! You should see stuff before I have to put them in the garage.


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