reprising a 2010 visit to the Ruth Bancroft Garden

(Ms. Bancroft is celebrating her 108th birthday this month — yes, that’s not a typo — and we’re all awaiting the upcoming launch later this fall of the book chronicling the making of her garden The Bold Dry Garden.)

If you have an Internet connection and a love of plants, you probably also have many unmet friends with those same two attributes.
Finally meeting up with them is thrilling. When they arrange to take you to marvelous gardens you’ve never visited before, life doesn’t get any better.

Just such a friend arranged for a group of gardeners to visit the Ruth Bancroft Garden, located in Walnut Creek, California, one I’ve long wanted to explore. The garden didn’t disappoint.

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I’m guessing Agave lophantha.

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This guy in the center looks a lot like my Mr. Ripple, which is an A. salmiana hybrid.

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Thrilling enough, no? But what I didn’t expect to find was garden scenes like this.

Our visit luckily coincided with the RBG’s 16th annual Sculpture in the Garden fundraiser. Nothing loosens up a group of gardeners more than provocative garden sculpture.

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You should have seen the caboose on this lizard lady. I don’t know how she kept her balance in those heels.

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But it would take a lot more than a lizard in heels to upstage plants like the spiral aloe, Aloe polyphylla.

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There were swathes of succulents of every stripe, spike, and rosette, including this Aloe distans.

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And the occasional bull-human ceramic hybrid.

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These sauteed gentlemen utterly charmed me.

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We were wondering if this regal fellow is the Sharkskin Agave, aka the Ruth Bancroft Agave. Can you tell we toured without a docent?
I doubt a docent could have corralled us. We peeled off in twelve different directions, crossing paths periodically to compare notes and point out possible missed gems.

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Barrel cactus and a gorgeous, diaphanous, broom-like shrub but apparently not a cytisus. No one knew its name.

When curiosity grew to unmanageable proportions, we flagged down docents to fire questions at them. (What a nice bunch docents are.)

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This plant seemed to attract the most attention.
The flowers were similar in shape to our native calochortus and also to an Australian shrub that’s grown in So. Calif. that we call the “Blue Hibiscus,’ Alyogyne huegelii.
The Blue Hibiscus has sandpapery-textured, maple-shaped leaves, and this shrub’s leaves were threadlike.
Input from a couple docents pieced together an ID. Alyogyne hakaeifolia.

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More garden denizens.

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These ceramic sculptures were built in components and slipped over pvc pipe. The combinations arising from this simple technique are seemingly endless.

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Meeting a group of gardeners, of course, never disappoints. Their erudition in matters horticultural and otherwise can be astounding.

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And whether fluent in botanical Latin or not, we all speak the same language and come from the same tribe.

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The sculpture exhibit and sale runs through July 18, 2010.

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roll out the barrel(s)

I know spiky agaves in the garden make some people nervous, but lovers of architectural plants for the dry garden can get into a lot more trouble than an agave.
The golden barrel cactus has recently gotten under my skin, figuratively speaking only, thank goodness.
Echinocactus grusonii holds the dubious distinction of being one of the most familiar yet endangered cactus planted around Southern California.
Illegal collecting and the building of the Zimapan Dam and reservoir in its native Hidalgo, Mexico, haven’t helped matters.
Indeed, Jim Folsom, Director of the Huntington Botanical Garden, believes it is probably no longer to be found in the wild.


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Golden barrel cactus at the Ruth Bancroft Garden


Regrettably, I have only one golden barrel cactus to roll out, to test its light-splintering qualities this fall, now that light and wind have replaced heat as the big news in the garden.
I plug pots of agaves into the garden all the time as the seasons (or my itchy digging fingers) open up space for their big sculptural rosettes.
But this is a first for me, temporarily moving a potted barrel cactus into the garden, and that’s for a couple reasons.
In my experience, barrel cactus are rarely used as specimens and are almost always planted in groups. Would just one look silly?
And, secondly, Echinocactus grusonii deals with any absent-minded mishandling quickly and savagely, inflicting a “dirty wound,” prone to infection.
So why risk it, you say?

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The key word is “golden.” It has a wonderful solidity, but all those golden spines arrayed like hundreds of tiny propellors impart a surprising lightness too.
Doesn’t that silver pot make it look like a prickly loaf of rising bread?
Placement of cactus in the landscape does bring up valid concerns for pets and children. My little experiment is in a spot safe from wandering corgi paws.

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As far as planting as a specimen versus in groups, I’m still undecided.
Here golden barrel cactus is a specimen with fiery red Crassula pubescens ssp. radicans. I am so not ashamed of wanting to steal this idea.

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With dyckias and Echeveria agavoides at the Huntington’s Desert Garden

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The same area stepping further back, when the Palo Verdes were in bloom, photo by Mitch.

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A group of barrel cactus with the whale’s tongue agave (A. ovatifolia) at the Sherman Gardens

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A small group as an accent in a complex planting at the Jardin Majorelle in Morocco, photo by Mitch Maher.

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With Dragon Trees at Lotusland.

This cactus grows readily from seed, maturing to flowering size in roughly 15 years.
The Getty in particular has a spectacular mass planting of this cactus.

Agave geminiflora



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Agave geminiflora spangled in morning dew is one of my favorite sights these mornings.
Slow growing, doesn’t offset, rare denizen of open oak woodland in Mexico, and just about everybody agrees the best thing in a container since Nutella.
The Ruth Bancroft Garden has more history and cultural information here.


Agave ‘Shira ito no Ohi’

Or, more specifically, Agave filifera ssp. schidigera ‘Shira ito no Ohi’ (Queen of White Thread Century Plant). No one seems to know the origin of the variegated form of this wee agave with the big name, whose queenly title was bestowed by Tony Avent of Plant Delights. Another gorgeous agave for containers, I slipped mine from its confines this summer and released it into the garden, hoping to push its speed of growth up a bit. At maturity, it won’t be much larger than a foot across. I don’t typically grow sharp, spiky plants in the back garden, which gets changed up often. That’s what the front gravel garden is for. But this slow-growing agave’s single rosette is not destined for intimidation, just endless fascination.


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Agave filifera ssp. schidigera ‘Shira ito no Ohi.’ Nice threads.
Another Mexican succulent, Echeveria elegans, the Mexican Snowball, providing scale.
If memory serves (and it often doesn’t), it was this echeveria that designer Kellee Adams said was the most sun-tolerant at the Wave Garden in Richmond, California, a stop during the 2013 Garden Bloggers Fling.


In an August 22nd lecture on “The Amazing Plants of Mexico,” Brian Kemble, Curator of The Ruth Bancroft Garden, pointed out that this agave’s famous threads are a recessive trait. When crossing a “thready” agave with one lacking threads, progeny will always be threadless. In case you were wondering.

anatomy of a late-summer road trip

Is there a tinge of desperation in the road trips of late summer? By the end of summer are we stuffing itineraries with an absurd number of places to see in the dwindling opportunities to experience daylight until 8 p.m.? Guilty here. I’ll give a recent example from just this last weekend. And for the similarly desperate, there will be a trail of bread crumbs to follow for potential future road trips for the fall season. By fall I’ll be reconciled to the inevitability of autumn’s shortened days, and any road trips then will undoubtedly be washed in a golden haze of acquiescence to the rhythms of the seasons.


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image courtesy of Thread and Bones


It all began with a 63-foot-long hall in an apartment in the Mission district of San Francisco that could use the services of our 9-foot-long Turkish rug. The one we can’t use at home because of the prodigious shedding capabilities of the corgi. (Even the thinnest pretense for a late-summer road trip will do.) Los Angeles to San Francisco, roughly six hours. I’ve made this trip many, many times and have lived in a couple of the trip’s stops, like Petaluma and San Francisco. Familiarity increases the speed factor, another important consideration for late-summer road trips. My workload was fairly light, so Thursday to Monday were clear. Marty has been working all summer weekends, so it would just be me and my smart phone, a formidable traveling companion that can read to me How The Irish Saved Civilization in between navigating duties. The only question left was:

Before delivering the rug, where would I like to go?

Continue reading

Agave franzosinii

This photo was taken by MB Maher during a visit he made to artists Sue Dadd and James Griffith’s amazing Folly Bowl last summer.

Some agave, huh?


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I’m now fairly sure that this uber-undulating creature is Agave franzosinii, which develops this distinctive kinetic energy to its luminous, silvery leaves when mature.
If there’s another agave out there that gives this shimmering, geyser-like performance, please leave a comment and correct me. The Folly Bowl agave seems to corkscrew and twist as opposed to the Lotusland agave, whose leaves are more uniformly, well, lotus-like, but even so, I still suspect the Folly Bowl agave is A. franzosinii. Lotusland seemingly has the definitive A. franzosinii against which all contenders are measured. For example, the true A. franzosinii should not offset much, and the teeth are further apart than agaves sold under the same name. San Marcos Growers sells this agave from stock obtained from Lotusland, but occasionally this agave will pop up for sale from other sources, with variations such as the teeth being closer together or upright leaves that fail to cascade.

From Agaves, Yuccas and Related Plants by Mary and Gary Irish:

No record exists of a natural distribution of Agave franzosinii. It has been known ornamentally for more than 100 years, particularly in European gardens. Whether it is an unusual form of A. americana, with which it clearly is related closely, or a one-time hybrid remains open to further work.”

I have to thank garden designer Dustin Gimbel for bringing this agave’s name to my attention. Many of us have probably looked at this agave in photos or in actual botanical gardens without knowing its name. I know I have.

Trio Nursery in Santa Barbara, California, has sold this plant recently and may have current stock.
There is a photo of this agave at the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, California, from their Flickr photostream here, including an inspiring image of Ms. Bancroft herself still hard at work.