Monthly Archives: May 2011

Tool shed has a new look

On the west side of the island, tucked under the New Zealand Christmas tree, Metrosideros excelsa, is the historic tool shed, originally built by inmates in the 1950s. The tool shed has a million dollar view towards the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean beyond. Without a doubt, this view was a constant reminder of a world beyond the reach of the inmates that worked in these gardens.

View of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The toolshed in 2009. Photo by Robin Abad

The tool shed, like the gardens, was abandoned in 1963, and could not escape the weathering effects of Pacific storms and the relentless summer winds and salt air. The tool shed was repaired by the National Park Service in the late 1970s and again by garden volunteers in the spring of 2010 with help from the National Park Service maintenance team. The tool shed was in a bad state of repair with the roof falling in and most of the wood structure rotting away. The cement block base walls were still in fair condition and only needed minor patches. Just like the inmates had used scrap lumber on the island in the original construction, we scouted re-use stores to find a door, suitable windows, and flashing for the roof. This past month, garden volunteers applied primer and a fresh coat of ‘Presidio White’ paint to finish up the restoration.

Garden volunteers applying the final coat of paint. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Posted in History, Rehabilitation, Volunteers, Weather | 1 Comment

Cheerful face towards San Francisco

Has anyone been curious why the hillsides of Alcatraz are turning pink?

Pink drosanthemum blooming on the cellhouse slope. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Pink iceplant, Drosanthemum floribundum or Persian carpet, has been very prominent this past week from Crissy Field, Fisherman’s Wharf and on a clear morning, even from Doyle Drive coming into the city.

The planting of the tiny succulent was part of a beautification effort undertaken by the military in 1924 after being pressured by the vocal citizens of San Francisco to landscape the barren the island. Inmates took part in the planting and soon, carpets of pink cascaded down the steep hillsides, not only stabilizing the soil but providing a cheerful look desired by San Francisco. It is somewhat ironic that a gentle soft pink was chosen to mask the harsh prison.

Historic view of the Persian Carpet from the parade ground. Photo by C. Stucker

Neglected cellhouse slope in 2007. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

With 40 years of neglect, the iceplant on the cellhouse slope suffered and was soon choked out with oxalis, wild radish and grasses. In 2007, this historic garden area was restored.

 

 

Stabilized slope newly planted with iceplant plugs, October 2007. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The slope was stabilized with jute netting and cuttings of Drosanthemum from elsewhere on the island were established on the slope.  Coaxing the drosanthemum to take root and to keep the slope free of oxalis has been no easy task. Staff and volunteers have invested countless hours into weeding over the past four years, but seeing our efforts from across the water, well over a mile, is quite awarding.

The slope this week. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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Alcatraz’s bearded iris are blooming

Bearded iris has been a long-time garden favorite that even found their way onto the most notorious prison island. There are five cultivars of bearded iris that are survivors from the prison days, blooming every May without fail. One survivor, Iris ‘King’s Ransom’ blooms twice a year, early spring and again in the fall. The other four cultivars are still unidentified, and we are working at finding out more about them.

Survivor bearded iris in Officers' Row. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 My favorite iris is in bloom right now in Officers’ Row. This clump of iris was entirely covered by ivy and blackberries until 2003, when they were cleared and began to flower again. The 3’ flower stalks are heavy with lavender blooms that catch visitors by surprise with their bubble gum fragrance. Another survivor iris smells like root beer, clearly not your average modern iris.

Up close. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The only thing better than five cultivars of bearded iris is more bearded iris! The Garden Conservancy’s first preservation project, the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek is a garden haven for heirloom bearded iris. Ruth Bancroft’s collection matches the time frame of the penitentiary gardens, and so Alcatraz has received divisions of her iris for the past four years. We now have just over 30 cultivars of heirloom iris in a wide range of vibrant colors and rich scents. The iris are not troubled by the dry summers, winter rains or the salt breezes and fog. Occasionally, there will be aphids on the leaves but these are easily washed away.

Ruth Bancroft Garden iris. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The iris will be in bloom for only another two weeks, so now is the time to walk your nose around the island finding these heirloom garden beauties.

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