Ruth Bancroft Garden is open again—and better than ever

Like most public gardens in the U.S., the Ruth Bancroft Garden (RBG) in Walnut Creek, California, just under an hour from my house, had to close its gates during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, as California and Walnut Creek are beginning their recovery, the RBG was allowed to re-open last week.

I visited last Saturday, sporting the still-required face mask that has become the emblem of this crazy time. Traffic through the nursery is one-way now, and signs all over the garden ask visitors to keep 6 feet apart. I arrived at 11:00 a.m. and while there was a steady stream of visitors, there weren't enough people to cause any issues with keeping my distance.

I don't know if this a particularly fine spring or if the plants have been receiving additional TLC, but the RBG looked even more splendid than usual. Everything appeared brighter and more vivid. Maybe it's because I've spent so much time in home confinement, but the outside world seemed to have an extra sparkle to it.

I took a lot of photos—my camera was in serious need of a workout—and even though I've tried to edit them down, there are still about 60 I want to show you. Savor them slowly, like a box of fine chocolates.

What a magnificent specimen of Yucca rostrata to grace the entrance! The building behind it is the new Visitor and Education Center.

Social distancing isn't that difficult. Just pretend there's an Agave franzosinii between you and the nearest person.

Looking at the nursery from just inside the garden entrance

Agave franzosinii and Yucca rostrata

Agave franzosinii, the specimen on the right is showing the “lost-wax” effect where the blue wax that covers the leaves is rubbed off as the plant grows

Agave franzosinii and Penstemon spectabilis

Agave franzosinii as seen through the oak tree that has been growing here for 100+ years

Agave franzosinii

Visitor and Education Center with recent plantings

Opuntia flowering in the native California area

Eriogonum crocatum and Ephedra nevadensis

Flowering Dudleya species

Palo verde (Parkinsonia 'Desert Museum') and woolly bluecurls (Trichostema lanatum), a small evergreen shrub native to the Southern California coastal ranges

Cardon (Pachycereus pringlei) and woolly bluecurls (Trichostema lanatum)

Agave ovatifolia

Agaves and leucospermum

Agaves and 'Desert Museum' palo verde

Flowering Aloe buhrii

Agave parrasana with its comically oversized flower stalk

The arching plant is a Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia). See this RBG plant highlight for more info.

Joshua tree seen from the other side

Agave 'Mad Cow' and manzanita

Agave ovatifolia (probably the cultivar 'Vanzie'), Banksia alliacea (known as Dryandra nervosa until 2007 when all dryandras were transferred into the genus Banksia), and Leucophyta brownii

Eucalyptus macrocarpa (click here for more info)

An instant classic: matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri) and Agave franzosinii

Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri) has one of the most amazing flowers among California natives

Palo blanco (Mariosousa willardiana), an acacia from the Mexican state of Sonora

Sometimes it's all about texture

Queensland bottle tree (Brachychiton rupestris) and low-growing aeoniums in full flower

Agave ovatifolia and Arctostaphylos 'Ruth Bancroft', the famous manzanita cultivar that magically appeared in the garden many years ago

This Agave ovatifolia has started to flower

Agave ovatifolia

Agave ovatifolia 'Orca'

Aloe buhrii × reynoldsii

Aloe buhrii × reynoldsii in a sea of hairy canary clover (Lotus hirsutus, previously Dorycnium hirsutum)

Aloes and pincushions (Leucospermum)

Three pincushion bushes: Leucospermum reflexum, Leucospermum 'Succession', and Leucospermum 'Blanche Ito' (top left to bottom right)

Leucospermum reflexum

Leucospermum 'Blanche Ito'

Aloe buhrii in a sea of ruby grass (Melinus nerviglumis)

Dyckia brevifolia or hybrid

Newly created stream flowing into the renovated pond in the heart of the garden

×Mangave ‘Purple Ribbons’, a hybrid between ×Mangave ‘Macho Mocha’ and Agave pablocarrilloi created by RBG curator Brian Kemble.

Sonchus palmensis, a dandelion relative from the Canary Islands

Mangave 'Lavender Lady' and Diplacus aurantiacus 'Fiesta Marigold'

Mangave 'Lavender Lady' and Senecio mandraliscae

More might mangaves

This mangave created by Brian Kemble was labeled: Manfreda 'Dit Dah' × Agave parrasana

More flower power

I have no idea what this flowering aloe is, but it puts on a quite show every year. I will ask Brian Kemble the next time I see him.

Yucca filifera

Agave ovatifolia and flowering cane cholla (Cylindropuntia spinosior)

Opuntia macrocentra

Opuntia macrocentra

Selfie with mask and socially distanced Agave ovatifolia. You may think I look grumpy, but I was actually smiling.

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  1. The new water feature looks awesome - I'll have to plan a trip across the Bay. Are masks required the entire time - or just when it's not possible to stay 6 feet away from other visitors?

    1. Hans, I think the entire time. It's a mandate from the Contra Costa County Health Department.

  2. The next best thing to visiting myself. Thank you!

    1. I was thinking of you. The new Agave franzosinii plantings are looking fantastic.

  3. Your timing was great and the garden does look glorious. You captured lots of wonderful plant combinations but I think my favorite is the Agave franzosinii and the Matilija poppy. Thanks for going where many of us cannot!

    1. I agree! That combo is worthy of imitation, given the space. You could totally do it on your back slope!

    2. Thank you so much for this tour. I love seeing the evolution of this garden. We have a long history. I first visited the garden back in 1976 in the middle of the night. I told Ruth about it when I started volunteering. I was there in 1989 for the Garden Conservany ceremony, was a volunteer from 2005 to 2014 and make it a point to visit whenever I'm in California. So many wonderful improvements over the years, and so many memories.

    3. What great memories! You've witnessed all the changes at the RBG first hand!

  4. Time to get in the car for a field trip ! It looks splendid , and I'm glad you took a zillion photos .I really need to try growing a Leucospermum, even if it turns out to be futile. Walnut creek is Sunset 15 and Napa is 14 on the valley floor and 15 in the hills. Worth a try !

    1. I've tried and failed a few times BUT I think it's because I didn't get them enough water. They're *not* desert shrubs.

  5. That Joshua tree looks like an oversized Tillandsia funckiana.


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