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Monthly Archives: June 2011
Plants never stop amazing me. With their power to harness energy from sun and give us oxygen as a by-product; they provide us food, clothing, and beauty. Yet a group of plants that only gets noticed when it is the wrong spot deserves a bit more respect. These would be the weeds of our gardens.
The past rainy winter and spring produced weeds continuously. The weeds are well adapted at growing quickly to complete their lifecycle and set seeds to start the next generation before 1) the dry summer begins and 2) before being noticed and be pulled by a gardener. As I worked my way through the gardens over the past couple of months, I was impressed by how smart some of the weeds were for being able to hide themselves in amongst similar leafed plants.
I found fireweed, Epilobium, growing amongst Fuchsia ‘Grand Harfare’ and Jupiter’s beard, Centranthus ruber. Not until the weed had outgrown its hiding place and was flowering that it called attention to itself. The fuchsia’s leaves have an almost identical vein pattern to the epilobium and the pinky hue of the fireweed accented the coral tones of the fuchsia. The fireweed was able to disguise itself with the jupiter’s beard by being a light green that matched well, again, the leaf shape was almost indistinguishable.
Solanum americanum, American nightshade, is a very common weed on the island. It is very easy to pull when young but once established, the stems usually break off when pulled.
I found a young plant growing with tickseed, Coreopsis ‘Nana’. The deep green of the leaves of both plants is very much alike. Perhaps the ‘smart’ nightshade did not
realize that it was trying to camouflage itself with a dwarf cultivar and it quickly outgrew its companion.
‘How do you decide what to plant?’ is a common question that I get asked by visitors to the island. With choosing the right plant for the right place in a cultural landscape there are a few more considerations than your average backyard.
We aim to give ‘the look and the feel’ of what the gardens would have looked like during the days of the military era (1853-1933) and during the maximum security federal prison era (1934-1963). Detective work by Carola Ashford in the early days of the project built up a collection of historic photographs that we rely heavily upon. Using these photos, along with oral history interviews and historic letters, we were able to create gardens that echo the color schemes, textures and purpose of the original gardens.
Amazingly, historic photographs that we have never seen
before are still coming to light. Kathe Poteet had her early childhood years on the island in the 1950s while her father worked as the business administrator.
Kathe recently passed along a collection of photographs her parents had taken of their home on the Rock.
The photos reveal the Parade Ground, an area that has not been restored yet, to have once been a well-tended neighborhood with roses and hydrangeas at the foundations of the homes surrounded by manicured lawns. Many of the photos show Persian carpet, Drosanthemum floribundum, spilling over the seawall and the grove of Eucalyptus by the dock is still young.
Kathe is planning on attending the Alcatraz Alumni Weekend in August when past residents visit the island to share their experiences with visitors. It is through this once-a-year occasion that we have been able to compile an extensive collection of landscape photos.
I hope to meet with Kathe to find out more about the people in the photos and about her father, who obviously had a green thumb.
Looking at the photos, the pride the residents took in tending their gardens is clear; it is easy to imagine calling Alcatraz home.
Spanish discovery and exploration of the San Francisco Bay Area and its islands began in 1769. The English surveyed the Bay in 1826. Early maps of Alcatraz can be viewed on the National Park Service website.
Cartography has come a long way since the Spanish and English mapped Alcatraz in the mid 1700s. This week, Robert Warden, the Director of the Center for Heritage Conservation (CHC) and Professor of Architecture at Texas A&M University has been on the island with his associates Dr. Julie Rogers, Associate Director for the CHC and Lonnie Champagne along with Director Dr. Tanya Komas and her students from the Concrete Industry Management Program at Chico State University, to demonstrate the uses of laser scanning.
Laser scanning or Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) is a method of producing millions of points in 3D space that represent the size and shape of objects as large as landscapes and as small as nails. The product is called a point cloud, which can look like a 3D photograph if there are enough points. It produces points by bouncing a laser beam off of objects – like buildings – and calculating the angle and distance of the object from the scanner. It works very much like a typical survey total station in concept with the exception that scanners can calculate tens to hundreds of thousands of point locations per second rather than the single point from a total station. Multiple scans are carefully pieced together to form a complete 3D point cloud of the object. Scanners, like cameras have differing technical specifications that make them useful for different purposes. The challenge of recording historic buildings and sites like Alcatraz is the necessity for accuracy at large and small scales. Typical accuracy for the Riegl 390 used for this session is 6mm.
As I was speaking with Robert, his students were scanning the Warden’s House and within 30 minutes, an image was produced that could show me the individual bricks in the fireplace, looking down into the building.
Laser Scanning has been in use since the 1970s but only in the last fifteen years has the development of laser digital technology allowed it to be adapted for preservation and engineering purposes.
On Alcatraz, this technology will be useful for documenting the historic site accurately. Mapping the gardens in the early days of the Historic Gardens of Alcatraz Project was difficult with the overgrowth entanglements that obscured the fine details in the landscape.
With laser scanning, details such as gradient changes, precise distances and documenting the current state of the historic features can be done. Laser scanning is quick and accurate. In additional to documenting the landscape, the information gathered from laser scanning can produce accurate interpretive models and be useful for maintenance of the aging structures.
It will be exciting to see where this new technology will lead us.
Summer is slowly showing itself on the island and the change of seasons can be seen in the blooming gardens.
A section of the main road, as visitors walk from the dock to the cell house is affectionately called the ‘fern wall’, even though in summer there is no evidence of ferns anywhere. The granite blocks that form this retaining wall was built in the early military days and was softened by moss and ferns that came to the island likely as spores in the imported soil.
As the winter rains cease, the native fern, Polypodium californicum turns a golden brown and then go dormant. The fern wall undergoes a dramatic change from lush green to vivid pinks as the Jupiter’s beard, Centranthus ruber, bursts into the season. At the base of the wall is a collection of Pelargonium that are survivors from the prison days – ‘Brilliant’, ‘Mrs. Langtry’ and P. quercifolium that add to the hue of pinks.
To be accurate with historic photos of this wall, last year, we planted plugs of Persian carpet, Drosanthemum floribundum in the cracks of the granite blocks that will eventually cascade down the wall. With living walls being the current trend in gardening, this wall on Alcatraz was way ahead of its time.
When the fog rolls in, the intent of the original gardeners to create cheerfulness on a barren island must have been no easy undertaking. I also cannot help but wonder if the inmate gardeners marked the passage of time with the changing blossoms.