Monthly Archives: September 2012

Agave americana – the Inaccurate Timekeepers

Of all the plants on the island, the ones that get the most attention are the agaves.  Agave americana covers the southern slope of the island and greets visitors as they approach the island on the ferry. Originally planted by the military in the 1920s, these natives to the southwest and Mexico are excellent in coastal conditions and stabilizing slopes. They also have a sharp needle at the tip of each leaf that perhaps was useful in keeping inmates out of areas.

 

Agave flowers spikes with the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

With the common name of the century plant, Freddie Reichel, the first secretary to the Warden in 1934, called the agaves the ‘inaccurate timekeepers’.  The basal rosette of leaves takes between 10 and 15 years to send up a flower; but for impatient gardeners, it would seem like a century.

 

The flower spike is quite dramatic, and often visitors mistake it for a tree. The spike can rise up to 26 feet in height (8 meters). Once the plant has flowered, it will then die; but in the meantime, the plant has sent out new adventitious shoots (pups), that will take the place of the parent plant.

 

While this is not the plant that tequila comes from, the plant does have many other uses. The fibers in the leaves were used by natives to make rope, sew, or to make rough cloth. The seed pods are edible and a sweet liquid can be harvested from the flower stalks before the flowers open.

 

This past summer, the stand of agaves by the Warden’s house had one plant that was ready to flower. Being a gardener on the island certainly has its perks, and I was able to watch the flower spike reach for the sky and take a photo every week to see how fast it would grow. I first noticed the spike rising above the leaves mid-May and finished reaching the full height with the seed pods expanded mid-September.

 

Weekly progress of the flower spike growing. Photos by Shelagh Fritz

 

The flower spike has now taken its place alongside the other centuries. Now that the flowering is finished, I can start watching the new pups grow.

 

 

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The changing seasons

Autumn in North America is automatically associated with vibrant leaf color. Autumn in the Bay Area may not be as dramatic as on the East Coast, but the plants here are also anticipating the changing of the season.

 

Aside from an unusual sprinkle of rain in July, our landscape has only received fog drip since the last significant rainfall in May. Needless to say, the plants on Alcatraz that do not receive additional irrigation can hardly wait for the first rainfall.

 

Aeonium arborerum has shed its lower leaves to conserve water. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Succulents are well suited to our Mediterranean- like climate; they are just now beginning to show signs of dryness. Many of the signs are actually adaptations to the lack of water. All of the succulents are able to store water in their highly evolved stems, leaves, and/or roots. In fact, when water becomes scarce, some succulents will shed their lower leaves to conserve water. As soon as water becomes available again, the plant begins to store water again in the existing leaves and will grow new leaves as well.

Another response is a change in leaf color. Chlorophyll is responsible for the green that we see in plants; but there are other pigments in plants that give red, blue, orange and yellow colors.  It is thought that in response to stress, plants will show pigments that would otherwise be hidden.  Anthocyanin and betalain are pigments that give a red hue.

Several succulents on Alcatraz are

Jade plant with green leaves in the spring and early summer. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

now showing their true colors. Crassula ovata, the common Jade plant, normally has a leaf edge ringed in red, but now has the entire leaf deepened in a shade of red and while the red edge is very brilliant.

 

 

 

Jade plant with red leaves at the end of the summer and into the fall. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Aeonium arboreum normally displays a rosette of green leaves; but now each leaf is edged in red, plus the lower leaves have been dropped to conserve moisture. Another succulent, Aeonium cuneatum has also adds to the display of color. This succulent normally is grayish green but has taken on more rosy gray leaves.

Aeonium arboreum with green leaves. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 

 

 

 

Regardless of the cause, the gardener can appreciate the changing seasons and design with the red hues in mind.

Aeonium cuneatum with grayish green leaves during the spring and summer. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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The Gardens of Alcatraz Logo

The garden volunteers are easy to spot on the island with our maroon colored t-shirts and sweatshirts. Proudly worn, our dark maroon uniform with the purple iris cannot be purchased but must be earned by volunteering five times in the gardens. Another source of pride is how faded the t-shirts become –the more faded the clothing becomes indicates a longer tenure, even the holes caused by names tags is something volunteers point out to each other.

 

 But how did our t-shirt come to be? Why was an iris chosen to represent the volunteer gardeners and the restoration work?

 

I spoke with Bill Prochnow and Vivian Young, graphic designers for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy to learn more.

 

The logo was developed in 2004 after Alcatraz poster by Michael Schwabbthe restoration project began in November 2003. In keeping with the existing park logos created by Michael Schwab, the iris graphic was designed to be fairly simple with bold colors and a strong black border. The Douglas iris drawing had already been designed by Vivian in 2004 for another project within the park, but had not been used. With iris being one of the survivor plants on the island, the decision to use the iris to represent Alcatraz was logical. Coincidentally, Douglas iris had been planted on the island by a group of BoyScouts in the early years of the island becoming a National Park, but had perished over the years. Amazing, a new clump of Douglas iris found its way to the island along the Main roadway and has flowered for the past two years.

The Gardens of Alcatraz volunteer t-shirt.Superimposing the iris image on the outline of the island’s silhouette tailored the graphic to represent the gardens. Reading into the images, the creation of the final graphic is perfect for the Gardens of Alcatraz – the harsh prison is softened by using yellow and the iris (the plants) dominate. A contrast to what visitors to the island expect to see.

 

The maroon color of our t-shirts was chosen by the late Carola Ashford, the gardens first Project Manager, simply because it was her favorite color. With a gift for color combination, she chose well as the maroon blended perfectly with the yellow and purple.

The start of the project was focused on removing vegetation to restore the gardens; so the wording on the shirts was worded ‘Alcatraz Garden Restoration’. The wording has since changed to ‘Gardens of Alcatraz’ to reflect that now there are gardens again to see and enjoy.

While our volunteer t-shirts still must be earned, we now offer a light lavender color version of our t-shirt for purchase in the island’s bookstores and online. The sale of our t-shirt helps to support our preservation work on the island.

 

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A time capsule?

The late Carola Ashford, the garden’s first Project Manager, described gardening on Alcatraz as ‘garden archeology’. Peeling back the layers of overgrowth from years of neglect would always reveal artifacts – forgotten items from the prison days. As we approach our tenth year, we are still finding items. But not all of our findings are artifacts from long ago.

This past week, while weeding

Barbara pointing out the location of the bottle. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

around the metal detector at the base of the recreation yard steps, Barbara, discovered a message in a bottle!

 

The crew of volunteers and I all gathered around, we all wondered what could be inside.

 

Prying open the Boylan Bottle Works Root Beer bottle (luckily one of the gardeners travels with a bottle opener), we teased out some moist papers. We speculated it was a time capsule or perhaps a million dollars left to care for the gardens. We were a bit off with our guesses; but the contents of the bottle did make us smile.

 

The volunteers gathering around to see what is inside. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Dated April 26th, 2011 -the bottle held the message ‘I love you. Let’s find this and laugh’. The note also had a big imprint of lipstick lips. We all did laugh at the find and it was fun to think that a visitor had left this behind for someone to find one day.

 

The message in the bottle. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The bottle also contained a BART ticket, a business card from Millennium, a vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco, and napkins from Extreme Pizza. Perhaps the bottle held the best memories from the person’s trip to San Francisco?

 

The bottle and its contents. Photo by Shelagh Firtz

Whatever the reason for leaving the bottle, it was exciting to find.

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