Renowned Walnut Creek drought expert and gardener Ruth Bancroft dies at 109

Image 1 of 3

Ruth Bancroft, a renowned expert on drought-tolerant plants who had a thing for succulents long before California’s most recent water problems, died at her Walnut Creek home at the end of the Thanksgiving weekend. She was 109.

“We are saddened to announce the passing of our beloved founder, Ruth Bancroft,” the Ruth Bancroft Garden stated on its website. “Ruth… died at home surrounded by family, and by the amazing private and public gardens she created and tended over 76 years of her lifetime.”

Bancroft gained international recognition for her ”pioneering work in horticulture, demonstrating that a dry garden in the heart of a busy urban, inland corridor could be lush, diverse, and striking in design,” the nonprofit stated. 

The executive director told the East Bay Times that Bancroft worked in the garden until she was 97 years old. Bancroft is survived by her children Peter Bancroft, Nina Dickerson and Kathy Hidalgo and four grandchildren. She died on Nov. 26.

KTVU was invited to her 107th birthday two years ago, where she enjoyed a big birthday cake with yellow flowers – her favorite.

Bancroft was born in Massachusetts and grew up in Berkeley. She studied architecture at UC Berkeley, but the 1929 stock market crash forced her to change her career plans, according to her nonprofit. Instead, Bancroft earned a home arts degree and later taught high school. In 1939, she married Philip Bancroft Jr., whose family owned a 400-acre walnut and pear farm in Walnut Creek.

 In the 1950s Ruth purchased her first succulent, a single potted aeonium, which is still growing in the collection. She quickly became fascinated with water-conserving plants and began collecting them. She amassed a huge collection of potted succulents.  Her garden contains more than  2,000 cactus, succulents, trees, and shrubs native to California, Mexico, Chile, South Africa, and Australia. 

She started her garden in 1972 as a nonprofit dry garden, which was open to the public in the 1990s. 

Today, The Ruth Bancroft Garden, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which owns the garden and raises funds for its preservation. The garden is protected by a conservation easement, which ensures that the property will always be a garden and will be preserved in the spirit of its founder.

The Bancroft name is the same one on UC Berkeley’s  library, where her husband's ancestors sold a large number of books. It’s also the name of the street in Walnut Creek where her garden is.

The Bancroft Family and The Ruth Bancroft Garden will host a celebration of Ruth’s life in the garden when weather permits in early 2018. 

 In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations in honor of Mrs. Bancroft be directed to benefit the mission of The Ruth Bancroft Garden, Inc. at 1552 Bancroft Road, Walnut Creek, 94598 or sent to the Garden via the website.  You can also donate by texting ALOE to 41444.