Monthly Archives: April 2011

Egrets in the overgrowth

The historic gardens played a vital role for the residents that called Alcatraz home. The plants softened the barren rock and created purpose for the inmates that tended the gardens. Today, the gardens continue to play a role in creating homes on the island.

 The overgrown vegetation created habitat for bird life. Snowy egrets have moved into the escaped fig tree, Ficus carica, and albizia trees on the west side of the island. These once endangered birds arrived two weeks ago to begin their nesting rituals. Perched in the overgrowth, the birds are first heard and then seen. Unsuspecting visitors stop in their tracks and puzzle over the sounds.

Snowy egret.

Working so close to these amazing birds is a great privilege, and the volunteers do their best to mimic them. Click on the videos below to hear the egrets, and the volunteers with their entertaining sounds.

Beth and the egrets_IMG_0583

Bharat and the egrets_ IMG_0586

George and the egrets_IMG_0584

Marney and the egrets_IMG_0589

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Island Edibles

 Alcatraz has an amazing collection of plants that can be categorized many different ways – natives, drought tolerant, historic – but with popular interest focused on landscaping with edibles, Alcatraz can check this box as well.

 Today, looking around the island, there is an assortment of edibles. There are the obvious miner’s lettuce, chickweed and oxalis and but there are also a few surprises.

The inmate gardens on the west side of the island have the surviving fruit trees. Originally planted in the 1940s, the apple, fig and walnut trees continue to thrive. The apple tree reliably produces a slightly sweet and very dense fruit while the fig tree is always loaded with an abundance of figs that never quite ripen in the cooler ocean breeze. For many visitors, this is their first time seeing a fig tree.

Apples on Alcatraz. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Fig tree with fruit. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 

The west side inmate gardens also hold the original artichoke plants, Cynara cardunculus. The perennial thistles are forming their seed heads right now which contain the tasty artichoke hearts. The silvery artichoke leaves blend with the silver blue of Echium candicans, Pride of Madeira, on the toolshed terraces. Once in bloom, the artichoke has a typical thistle flower – iridescent purple and pink.

Alcatraz artichoke. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Tropaeolum majus, nasturtium, was introduced to the island in 1924 by the California Wildflower and Spring Blossom Society. This cheerful rambling vine continues to seed itself around the island. The leaves and flowers are edible and have a peppery taste – perfect for a salad or to decorate a cake. The seeds can be pickled and taste like capers.

Nasturtium. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The military era also introduced Agave americana, century plant, to the island. The spikes on the leaf tips were likely ideal for keeping inmates in but the popular agave syrup is also made from this plant.

Agave americana. Photo by Shelagh

We have few records of past gardeners raising vegetables for their own use; with dreary summer fog the residents chose to mainly grow bright colored cutting gardens to brighten the landscape. There are a handful of photos and references to Victory Gardens tended by children on the parade ground and of tomatoes growing in Officers’ Row. As a token to past gardeners, there are two tomato plants in the greenhouse, providing a lucky volunteer a little snack while they work.

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Saving America’s Treasures

In 2006, the Gardens of Alcatraz, on behalf of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, was granted a Save America’s Treasures award to support the rehabilitation work. Spread over three years, these funds provided the means to rebuild pathways, railings, and retaining walls; amend soil and purchase plants; and to return the gardens to their historic appearance that are now enjoyed by the 1.5 million visitors each year.

Volunteers clearing overgrowth

Cutting gardens restored. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 

This past Tuesday afternoon, I had the pleasure of showing the gardens to the National Park Service grant officer who administered the Save America’s Treasures award throughout the three years of its term. The role of the representative was to ensure the funds were being allocated properly and work was progressing as planned. Based in Washington, D.C., Ms. Carter received quarterly updates from 2006 to 2009, but had never actually seen the gardens in person.

The Save America’s Treasures grant aims to do just that – Save America’s Treasures. Across the country there are many nationally significant sites that need to be preserved for their historical and cultural importance. The Save America’s Treasures is a wonderful grant program that provides a means to ensure these sites are saved. A common misbelief with national parks is that funding for these sites is guaranteed.

One of the requirements of the grant is for the applying organization to raise a matching grant. The Gardens of Alcatraz was awarded $250 000 and The Garden Conservancy, with its partner organization, was required to raise a matching $250 000.

The Gardens of Alcatraz is a great example of success. Without the award, we would not be where we are today. Visitors would not be strolling through cutting gardens reminiscent of the 1940s and 50s; they would not be aware that the gardens provided a home for the families that lived here, or the fact that inmates tended the gardens lovingly and created beauty in a place that focused on punishment and isolation.

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