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.
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.
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.
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.
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.