Spikes in the spring: Ruth Bancroft Garden in April 2019

The day before Loree “danger garden” Bohl and I set out for the 2019 Bromeliad Summit in Santa Barbara, we visited the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek. I hadn't been there in almost a year, and I was eager to see all the recent changes. I needn't have worried—the Visitor Center is in the final stretch of completion, the nursery is well-stocked and once again focused on plants instead of home decor, and the garden itself is looking splendid thanks to the leadership and vision of curator Brian Kemble and assistant curator Walker Young.

Loree for scale in front of the massive Agave salmiana 'Butterfingers' near the entrance

The most visible change is the Visitor and Education Center right at the entrance:

The Visitor Center is scheduled to open in June 2019. Click here for more information.

The first set of photos are of the nursery:

Nursery as seen from the driveway; parking is off to the right

Kiosk/cashier and one of several mosaic walls

The nursery was being stocked for the upcoming spring plant sale

A nice selection of everything from succulents to South African and Australian shrubs to California natives

More plant inside the "tent"

Golden barrel cactus either arriving in the nursery (maybe a donation?) or leaving

The gate in the very foreground is the way into the garden now. When the Visitor Center is complete, it will have a patio facing the garden—possibly another access point.

The biggest and most visible change in the garden is where the iconic clump of Agave franzosinii used to be. They had to be moved to make room for the Visitor Center. I think Brian and Walker did an outstanding job creating a new home for them. First-time visitors would never know these massive agaves had been in a different spot for decades.

Agave franzosinii and Yucca rostrata

Loree for scale

The generous amount of rain we've had has been a boon to the aeoniums

Looking toward the Visitor Center, with Agave franzosinii on the left

Visitors sometimes forget that the RBG has a large collection of bulbs. The two large plants in the front are Brunsvigia josephinae from South Africa. The tulips are Tulipa saxatilis, a species from the Greek Islands and western Turkey.

Tulipa saxatilis

Agave salmiana, one of several agaves pushing flower stalks right now

From the other side
I check in on this variegated Agave attenuata every time I'm there

Agave mitis

Another clump of Agave franzosinii on the right, and the covered bed on the left that gets wrapped in plastic in the winter.

Agave franzosinii and Agave mitis var. albidior

Euphorbia echinus

Euphorbia caput-medusae

The other side of the clump of Agave franzosinii you saw earlier

Wider view

Aloidendron 'Hercules' (same tree aloe, seen from two different sides)

The Visitor Center is now a new landmark that can be seen from many spots in the garden

This galvanized metal enclosure hides the pumps and controls for the pond, which is currently being rebuilt

Giant spear lily (Doryanthes palmeri) sending up one of its massive flower stalks. It flowered for the first time in 2016 (at that point it had been in the garden for 20 years) and seems to bloom every spring now.

NOID in front of Hakea lehmanniana, an Australian shrub with needle-like leaves

Yucca 'Bright Star', looking quite majestic jutting out of a sea of grasses

Agave americana var. protoamericana 'Lemon Lime'

The yellow-flowering plant is Sonchus palmensis, a dandelion relative from the Canary Islands

Still one of my favorite combinations at the RBG: Agave ovatifolia, Banksia alliacea (formerly Dryandra nervosa) and Leucophyta brownii

Spiral aloe (Aloe polyphylla), notorious difficult in climates with hot summers. I believe this is year 3 or 4 at the RBG, so Brian and Walker seem to have figured out how to keep it happy.

Possibly Agave potatorum on the left

Layers of color and texture from soft to spiky. The flowering shrub is Grevillea lavandulacea ‘Penola’.

Aloidendron ramosissimum

Leucophyta brownii and what looks like Lupinus sericatus

More bigly agaves

I'm including this photo to show you the mounds Walker Young has built all over the garden, both to create elevation for visual interest and to optimize drainage

More soil and rocks waiting to be turned into another mound

Echeveria cante

This cyclamen was possibly the most unexpected sight all day. I'd love to know how it ended up in the garden. Stealth planting?

Trio of Xanthorrhoea preissii, grass trees from Australia

The iconic Ruth Bancroft manzanita, a tough hybrid that seems to have originated in the garden. Unlike many Arctostaphylos species, it tolerates clay soil and summer irrigation very well.

Agave ovatifolia and Lampranthus spectabilis, one of many "ice plants" from South Africa

Agave ovatifolia and Lampranthus spectabilis

Lampranthus spectabilis, Agave ovatifolia, and Leucadendron 'Ebony'

Leucadendron 'Ebony' (back)

Leucadendron 'Ebony' and palo blanco (Mariosousa willardiana), an acacia from Sonora, Mexico

Banksia carlinoides (formerly Dryandra carlinoides

Banksia polycephala (formerly Dryandra polycephala)
Agave ovatifolia 'Vanzie'

Rare variegated Agave ovatifolia

Agave guiengola, massive and chunky

The bluish plant in the front right is Acacia aphylla, another weird and wonderful member of this massive genus—there are 950 (!) species in Australia!

“Weird and wonderful” also applies to this Acacia denticulosa. The leaves have a sandpaper quality, and the flowers look more like catkins than the puff ball flowers typical of the genus.

Eremophila nivea, one of 250+ species and untold named cultivars of this iconic Australian shrub. Some species are commonly known as "emu bush."

Another vignette where everything has come together in a way that really appeals to me. My favorite here is the juvenile eucalyptus in the middle. It's Eucalyptus macrocarpa, known for having the largest flowers of any eucalypt (as large as 4 inches across). I just got one myself as a replacement for a palo verde we unfortunately will have to take out because it hangs too far into the street.

And now we've come full circle: The last photo is the same Agave salmiana 'Butterfingers' that Loree was getting cozy with in the first photo. If anybody is interested, I have pups to share—I bought an offset from the Ruth Bancroft Garden years ago and have kept it corralled in a pot. The mother plant is still less than 10 inches tall but it has produced a number of offsets.

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  1. So much beauty! (and no, I'm not referring to the photos with me, ha!). Thanks for hauling me there and taking time out of your schedule to visit.

  2. I MUST get up that way, preferably in a month other than August when I melt upon getting out of the car. I'm taking away 2 lessons from this post: the fact that species tulips do so well in the RBG is a great endorsement for trying them in my own garden and the sight of that beautiful Leucadendron 'Ebony' suggests that mine needs stronger sun exposure.

  3. Just going to pretend I didn't read about a manzanita that tolerates clay soil and summer irrigation/rain. They are sooo beautiful.

    Condolences in advance on the palo verde removal; dang.

    Thanks for having us along on your outing with Loree. As usual, I learned a ton. (Except about the manzanita; I saw nothing!)

  4. " the nursery is well-stocked and once again focused on plants instead of home decor"

    That is such good news! Hooray!

    How do they grow Aloe polyphylla in Walnut Creek!?!? I really, really need to know! Theirs looks great.

    The whole garden looks great. I guess rain is magic up there, too.

  5. Wonderful overview Gerhard, but it was hard for me to digest how long its been since you visited.I was there in Feb but I plan to go in the next couple of weeks-it's hard because there is so much to do inmy garden and I lose a half day going to RBG. You know how that is ! The most mysterious thing in this post-I can't recall ever seeing Sonchus in this garden.I peered intently at your photo trying to figure out exactly where it was with no success.

  6. Definitely a garden on my bucket list. Amongst a host of gorgeous speciments the Echeveria cante really stuck out. It's gorgeous! A bit of a giggle with the spear lily photo. Looks like a pair of hairy garden legs in behind. Thanks for the tour. As usual your photos are almost like being there is person.


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