Ruth Bancroft at 108 fulfills 40 year wait for Yucca bloom!

Back in 1971 when Ruth Bancroft, then 63, began planting a garden on 3 acres in Contra Costa County, she knew that the yuccas and agaves and other dry-adapted plants she loved might not blossom in her lifetime. But she was less interested in immediate gratification than compelled by what she could learn about the low-water plants she collected, documented and categorized.

The story of Bancroft and her namesake garden in Walnut Creek is beautifully told in “The Bold Dry Garden: Lessons From the Ruth Bancroft Garden” by Johanna Silver (Timber Press, 235 pages, $34.95).

The public attention for what started as her own private sanctuary might seem even more surreal to Bancroft than the 40-year wait for a single yucca blossom. The centenarian is mostly homebound these days and visits her garden just a few times each year, but conversations with Silver, with the garden’s executive director Gretchen Bartzen and with special-projects coordinator Billie Hopper paint a portrait of a woman who is less driven horticulturalist and more curious collector. Bancroft loved to experiment and learn all she could, starting with irises, then seashells, and later roses and recipe cards before she plunged headlong into dry garden planting.

Bancroft began studying architecture in 1926 at UC Berkeley but, says Silver, “When she saw that even men were having trouble getting jobs in the field because of the Great Depression, she switched to home economics.” After marrying Philip Bancroft Jr., for whose grandfather the special-collections library at UC Berkeley is named, Ruth Bancroft moved with her husband to his family’s 400-acre fruit and nut farm. The couple raised three children, and the home-economics degree came in handy since Bancroft cooked lunch every day for Phil and the field hands.

By 1971, just 11 acres of the farm remained, the bulk sold off to residential developers. By then, Bancroft’s children were grown. When the 3-acre walnut orchard on the property succumbed to disease, Phil offered it to his wife to design. Ruth Bancroft suddenly had, in the form of that patch of dirt, a blank slate and total control.

She began to design a garden to hold the 2,000 succulent plants she had accumulated in greenhouses and shade houses around the family home. “She knew she had to be careful with water,” Hopper says. “They were limited to the well water from the property.”

So last year, when one of the towering yuccas finally sent forth a cascade of spectacular white flowers for the first time in 40 years, Bancroft, now 108, likely appreciated its beauty and the data point it provided in equal measure.

Luckily, those limitations were perfectly suited to the plants that Bancroft spent the next 40 years nurturing. “Plants from dry regions are endlessly curious, really a study in evolution,” says Silver, who is the garden editor at Sunset magazine. “The adaptations can be bizarre, like the Queensland bottle tree whose trunk swells when it stores water, or cacti covered in silver hairs to deter sunlight. They gave Ruth a chance to keep exploring and learning.”

Some lessons were harder than others, like the 1972 freeze that carried off most of her initial planting, just months after tender succulents were placed into the ground. But, says Silver, “Frustration isn’t Ruth’s MO. She felt a lot of gratitude for having that piece of land.” In the years that followed, she experimented until she’d designed frost covers that are still used to protect the flora in her namesake garden. And when a similar cold snap happened in the ’90s, most of the plants survived thanks to those wooden and plastic frames.

As a gardener, Bancroft was a model of patience and determination. Says Silver: “There are photos of those 3 acres laid out with 4-inch pots. She liked to start small and give each plant room to grow.”

She frequently spent 10 hours a day weeding, sans hat, gloves or water. “I could always tell when Ruth was in the garden,” Hopper says, “because I could follow the trail of weeds she’d pulled and left on the paths.”

Ecological stewardship was never the driving passion for Bancroft. Hopper says that first and foremost, “Ruth was a plant lover, a collector and a designer. You could call her an accidental environmentalist.”

But Silver says that Bancroft was a pioneer in her embrace of California native plants. “She was not a snob,” says Silver, contrasting Bancroft’s approach to other high-profile gardens in the state that rely on nonindigenous plantings. “From early on, she showcased regionally adapted and drought-tolerant plants.”

The steady flow of visitors to the sunny parcel on Bancroft Road, drawn by the chance to see plantings that can stand up to drought and buy them at the nursery near the entrance, are evidence of how Bancroft’s garden helped shift the vision of what a vibrant California garden could look like.

Silver says she learned one other important lesson about gardening from Bancroft in writing the book: “Ruth inspired me to let myself experiment and not be scared. There doesn’t always have to be a finished, a-ha moment. It just has to feed my soul.”

Nancy Davis Kho is a freelance writer. Email


The Ruth Bancroft Garden and Nursery, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. 1552 Bancroft Road, Walnut Creek; (925) 944-9352.


Yoga Master at 98 -Täo Porchon-Lynch


Tao Porchon-Lynch, 98, practicing yoga at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Hartsdale, NY.  Credit Jennifer S. Altman for NY Times

On a recent Monday, Täo Porchon-Lynch was teaching her 90-minute yoga class in Hartsdale, N.Y., combining elements of Iyengar, meditation and vinyasa for a dozen or so regular students.

Ms. Porchon-Lynch’s soft voice was soothing as she called out poses — tree, dancer — and corrected alignment. She demonstrated some floor stretches, though she herself could not do them with perfect alignment on the right. “That’s my side with the hip replacement,” she said, fiddling with a large clip-on earring that had popped off.

Actually, it is the side of her most recent hip replacement. She has had three. Ms. Porchon-Lynch is 98, but a poster child for the active life.

She is also a dynamic dresser and confident driver. When the class ended, she hurried out of the studio in her bright yoga pants and peep-toe high heels into her new ride, a gray Smart Car.

She revved the engine a few times before peeling out of the parking lot, en route to teach a private lesson. Then she hurried to the Fred Astaire Dance Studio for her own waltzing lesson; she is a competitive ballroom dancer as well as a yoga teacher.

“I’m 50 years younger than her, and her schedule exhausts me,” said Teresa Kay-Aba Kennedy who (along with Janie Sykes Kennedy) was an author with Ms. Porchon-Lynch of the memoir “Dancing Light: The Spiritual Side of Being Through the Eyes of a Modern Yoga Master.”

The night before, Ms. Porchon-Lynch and Ms. Kay-Aba Kennedy had returned from California, where Ms. Porchon-Lynch headlined an event for Athleta, an athleisure brand owned by Gap Inc., at its store at the Grove in Los Angeles. She also did a photo shoot for the label.

Perhaps more than any other physical regimen, yoga has gotten tremendous public-relations benefit from social media. The images of women and men wrapped into graceful, gravity-defying poses are arresting and highly shareable in the visual worlds of Facebook and Instagram.

The result is a new subset of professional instructors: the yogalebrity who makes much of her living on the road, not unlike a small-time rock star, appearing at retreats and conferences, posting inspirational quotes fashioned in flowery Pinterest-friendly fonts, and pictures of inner peace found through arm balances or legs over one’s head.

Portion of article Täo Porchon Lynch – Oldest living yoga celebrity

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