Monthly Archives: March 2013


Spring is no doubt one of the busiest times of the year in any garden. For us, the winter rains seem to be tapering off and the weeding (hopefully) will slow down.  Visitors often comment that they hardly see any weeds in our gardens. This is, in large part, thanks to the crew of dedicated volunteers that come out each week. Many of the volunteers steward a favorite garden area and take great pride in keeping their area looking the best at all times.

2011_April_Rose Terrace_Dutch purple iris and Homeria_SLF photo (1)

Spring blooms of Homeria (cape tulip) and dutch iris ‘Sapphire Beauty’. Photo by Shelagh Fritz


In fact, stewarding garden areas has worked out so well, that we are encouraging other volunteers to pick an area. It’s not just weeding that needs to be done – there is a job for everyone, and besides, what other job lets you pick what you want to do?


2011_February_Corny Foster in Officers' Row_Terrace 8_Shelagh Fritz photo

Corny weeding oxalis. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The pocket gardens left by the military along the main roadway all have someone to tend them. One volunteer loves to pick out oxalis from a granite wall and encourages lichens and ferns to grow. It’s also a prime spot to talk with visitors. You can almost tell her height by the line of oxalis that is just out of grasp.


The compost pile draws its own characters of tough volunteers who faithfully turn the 4’x 4’ x 4’ piles each week and keep on top of the new vegetation debris constantly being added.


The rose terrace has another volunteer who focusses on watering by hand each of the roses and the greenhouse, while another volunteer loves to deadhead the roses to keep them blooming for months.


Other volunteers have found niches for themselves by pruning ivy off of railings, removing yellow leaves, dead flowers and broken stems from the ivy leaf pelargoniums in the 330’ long planter trough, or sweeping roadways.


Stewarding can also be seasonal – for example, as the oxalis finishes growing on the cell house slope, removing dead flowers (deadheading) from geraniums is just starting in other garden areas.


Volunteers stewarding the trough planter by removing yellow leaves and spent blossoms. Photo by Fergal Moran.

Volunteers stewarding the trough planter by removing yellow leaves and spent blossoms. Photo by Fergal Moran.

For parents trying to encourage kids to get hooked on gardening, giving the kids one plant that is ‘theirs’ might just be the way to give them not only the responsibility of keeping something alive, but they also get to experience the joy of seeing something that is flourishing because of them.


Posted in Volunteers | Comments Off on Stewardship

Fascinating Fasciation

 Chances are, you have seen fasciation on your own garden plants and maybe thought ‘how weird’ and did not think much more about it. Fasciation is a mutation in a plant’s growth habit, which causes the plant to grow flattened, elongated shoots and flower heads that look like many stems compressed together. I recently came across an Aeonium arboreum on Alcatraz that has a branch of flattened growth with many dwarf rosettes growing along the top of the flattened stem.


The flattened stem of affected stem compared to the normal round stem of the aeonium. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The flattened stem of affected stem compared to the normal round stem of the aeonium. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

So why does this mutation happen? Geoff Stein submitted an article for the website, Dave’s Gardens, and describes various theories but the precise cause is unknown. A bacterial, fungal or viral infection may cause some genetic mutation and a phytoplasma (a mix of a bacteria and a virus) has been proven to cause the mutation in some species. Of course, chemical and physical trauma are possibilities, though usually that sort of trauma damages the meristem (growth center) in such a way that the plant simply begins to divide, resulting in ‘ordinary’ branching or multiple heads. Perhaps radiation from the sun is another possible mutation cause.  Some plants seem more prone to this mutation at various seasons, so temperature, humidity or heat may have some influence.  Some nutritional deficiencies have been known to lead to cresting mutations (e.g., Zinc deficiency) as well.  Sometimes mutations can occur spontaneously, just a chromosomal malfunction.  

Mutated leaves of this aeonium are smaller than the normal rosette of leaves. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Mutated leaves of this aeonium are smaller than the normal rosette of leaves. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

These mutations are not passed along through seed, but, as Stein notes, there has to be some sort of genetic tendency for these mutations to occur as many species form fasciations fairly commonly while others have never been found to do so.  Succulents and cacti tend to be fasciated quite often. For the number of succulents on the island though, this is the first time we have seen this growth.

Fasciated growth  is not uncommon in other plants – forsythia being one of the more common. Recently, a Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy field staff noticed the mutation happening in poison oak!

Cuttings can be done of the mutated growth and a quick search on websites, show that these mutations can be highly desired. Perhaps we will start a fascinating fasciation garden?


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Test Your Knowledge

Upon arriving to Alcatraz, many visitors are surprised at how, well, BEAUTIFUL, the island is. The gardens are a stark contrast to what they were expecting to find – a barren island in the middle of San Francisco Bay that has the world’s most famous prison. Test your knowledge about the gardens with these questions, I bet you learn something new.


1.  In 2005, a plant inventory was done of the surviving vegetation on Alcatraz. How many species of plants were found?

A. Less than 50

B. Between 51 and 100

C. Between 101 and 200

D. Over 200


2.   True or False – the island has no source of freshwater other than fog drip and rainfall.


3.  True or False – all of the island’s soil was imported.


4.  True or False – the gardens have plants from every continent except Antarctica.


5.  True or False – inmate gardener, Elliot Michener,

Inmate gardener, Elliot Michener. Photo courtesy of J. Simpson.

Inmate gardener, Elliot Michener. Photo courtesy of J. Simpson.

was so attached to the gardens he created during his 9 year stay, that upon his transfer to Leavenworth Prison in Kansas, he requested to come back to Alcatraz to finish his sentence.


6.  True or False – today, the garden volunteers have a worm farm in the rose terrace greenhouse.


7.  The nasturtiums seen growing on the island today were introduced:

A. 1924 by the California Wildflower and Spring Blossom Society

Nasturtium. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Nasturtium. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

B. A seagull dropped the seeds

C. 2003 when The Garden Conservancy began clearing overgrowth


8. Alcatraz Island is 22.5 acres in size. The gardens make up:

A. 500 ft2

B. 1 acre

C. 2 acres

D. 4.5 acres


9.  True or False – During the island’s days as a military prison, there was a mule stable on the west lawn.


10.  True or False – Penitentiary guards would sometimes fish from the Alcatraz dock. They would use the fish heads to fertilize the island’s roses.


11.  True or False – Penitentiary inmates tended flower gardens and would leave buckets of flowers on the dock for guards’ families.


12.  The garden restoration began in 2003 and relied heavily on volunteer gardens. As of January 2013, garden volunteers have logged:

A. 1000 hours

B. 10 000 hours

C. 30 000 hours

D. 40 000 hours


13. True or False – once you are on the island, the garden tour is free.


14. The military and penitentiary encouraged inmates to garden, mainly to give the inmates something to do. A number of greenhouses were constructed on the island to help grow plants. Today, there are 2

The Warden's greenhouse. Photo courtesy of GoGa.

The Warden’s greenhouse. Photo courtesy of GoGa.

greenhouses on the island, but how many greenhouses once stood on the island?

A. 2

B. 4

C. 6

D. 8


15.  Today, Alcatraz is a protected sanctuary for many kinds of water birds who return to the island every spring to nest and raise their families. A few of these birds began coming to the island during the 40 years when the gardens became overgrown. Which birds come to the island because the overgrowth provides ideal nesting sites?

A. Seagulls and Brandt’s cormorants

B. Pelicans

C. Snowy egrets and black crowned night herons

D. Pigeon guillemots and penguins


16.  True or False – there are still more gardens to restore on the island.


17.  True or False – the military had vocational training for inmates to become gardeners.


18. The slope in front of the cell house was planted in 1924 to give a friendly look to San Francisco. The slope was restored in 2007 and the Persian carpet iceplant is blooming bright pink once again. The slope can be seen as far away as:

A. As you approach on the ferry

Pink persian carpet showing a cheerful face to San Francisco. Photo courtesy of J. Simpson.

Pink persian carpet showing a cheerful face to San Francisco. Photo courtesy of J. Simpson.

B. Fisherman’s Wharf

C. Crissy Field

D. The Golden Gate Bridge

E. Space


19. What is the secret ingredient in our award winning compost?

A. Bird guano

B. Oxalis

C. Anchor Steam hops

D. Love


20.  True or False – there is always something blooming in the gardens, regardless of the time of year.





1. d; 2. True; 3. True; 4. True; 5. True; 6. True; 7. a; 8. d; 9. True; 10. True; 11. True; 12. d; 13. True; 14. c; 15. c; 16. True; 17. True; 18. d; 19. c; 20. c


How did you do?

15-20 correct answers – You should become a docent!

10-14 – Very good!

6-9      – Pretty good.

0-5      – Come join us on a tour!







Posted in Gardens of Alcatraz, History, Inmate Gardeners, Plants, Volunteers | Comments Off on Test Your Knowledge