remembering 2 great plantswomen: ruth bancroft and elizabeth farnsworth

LAST FALL, a month apart, the earth lost two of it great plantswomen. They were from opposite coasts, and one—Californian Ruth Bancroft, at 109 years old—was twice the age of the other, New Englander Elizabeth Farnsworth, 54. Both were individuals of great focus and optimism and energy whom I enormously admired, and will not forget.

ruth bancroft

I HAD NEVER SEEN ANYTHING like it before (nor have I since). Though situated in an arid zone, the Walnut Creek, California, garden of Ruth Bancroft was populated with what looked to me like undersea creatures—like coral reefs, and giant octopus. Island beds were planted with waves of cacti and succulents and other plants of the world’s dry places, plants I didn’t know were even possibilities for the palette of a home garden. It was maybe 1992 when I traveled there with Ken Druse to meet Ruth, just around the time the garden first allowed visitors.

Be bold, Ruth’s garden said, and go deep—deep into whatever group of plants fascinate you, no matter whether there is a roadmap for using them as you imagine they can be used. Study them, and collect them, and try to figure out how to connect them visually and make them happy. And don’t forget to weed—which apparently she was fastidious about (as the tribute video up top reveals). Though one of the nation’s best-known gardeners, she never forgot the basics.

I encourage you to visit the garden—if not in person, at least in pictures. Photo from the Ruth Bancroft Garden website, above, by Marian Brenner. More photos at this link.

Ruth Bancroft died November 26, 2017; read her obituary from the SFGate website of the “San Francisco Chronicle.”

elizabeth farnsworth

RARELY A DAY GOES BY when I am not consciously grateful to Elizabeth Farnsworth, who at the time of her sudden death on Oct. 27, 2017 was senior research ecologist at the New England Wild Flower Society (renamed Native Plant Trust in 2019). She had long been on my mind daily because the online research tool I probably use most in making plant decisions for my own garden and to help readers, too, called Go Botany, is the fruit of a project she headed up.

Elizabeth was an expert on ferns (she co-wrote the Peterson’s Field Guide on them, and was often lovingly referred to as Elizabeth Fernsworth). Likewise, she was an authority on ants (she was teaching assistant to the Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson), and on the flora of the New England region. A prolific and talented writer and illustrator, Elizabeth just kept sharing her enthusiasm, and knowledge, with us all. A roundup of links to all her “Earth Matters” columns for the Hitchcock Center and “The Daily Gazette” are here.

As if that were not enough, in 2015 Elizabeth completed a groundbreaking analysis of the state of the plants of New England, and meanwhile (literally) processed several million seeds as part of a conservation effort that New England Wild Flower Society spearheaded to become the region’s premier seed bank.

In two interviews last year, I had the pleasure of introducing her to you:

Read Elizabeth’s obituary in the “Boston Globe.”

  1. Chris says:

    A note to readers that there’s a link at the end of the Wildflower Society’s tribute to Dr. Farnsworth, where you can make a gift to any of several worthy causes in her memory.

  2. Margaret, thank you for this sincere remembrance of these remarkable women, both who have left a horticultural legacy for us all. I remember meeting Ruth Bancroft more than a dozen years ago…I had visited the botanical garden that bears her name when she still lived on the property and ventured into her private area….so many temptations, I hadn’t noticed the boundary and it was perhaps on that day my succulent addiction had truly begun.

    I am stunned to learn about Elizabeth Farnsworth’s passing. Although we must have traveled in the same circles, we never met. I will listen again to your interviews with her…such a treasure trove of knowledge and she is with us still, in her teachings and the gardens she inspired.

    1. margaret says:

      The Elizabeth loss stunned me, too, Kathy; I really couldn’t even believe it. Still cannot. I love your Ruth story and had no idea that she influenced you that day in your succulent pursuits. I have never forgotten getting out of the car with Ken and just being entranced.

  3. heidi mass says:

    I am just catching up on my reading after moving, I am so saddened by Elizabeth’s passing, it was one of my favorite podcasts and I forwarded it to so many people, it was so chock full of information. Thank you for sharing her with us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.