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Monthly Archives: May 2013
It’s hard to resist adding new succulents to the dry slopes on the west side of the island. With so many new plant introductions from nurseries, it’s hard to stick to plants that are in keeping with the correct time period that we try to convey in the Prisoner Gardens – the 1940s and 1950s.
With help from Brian Kemble of the Ruth Bancroft Garden, we are adding five new species of Aloes and Agaves this year. Brian recommended this selection based not only on our historical time period, when these plants would have been available to gardeners back then, but also on our climatic conditions.
These new plants will have to cope with dry summers, wet winters, wind, and poor sandy soils. Welcome to Alcatraz! Unlike new inmates, these plants are accustomed to these conditions and should feel right at home.
Our first aloe is the blue aloe, Aloe glauca. The work ‘glauca’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘bluish-gray’ referring to the color of the large thick leaves and to the powdery bloom on their surfaces. It is an essentially stem-less aloe with rosettes of up to 18″ in diameter. Each rosette can produce up to three cone-shaped inflorescences of pink to pale orange flowers. The leaf surfaces are smooth and the margins are armed with reddish-brown teeth. Blue aloe is restricted to the drier rocky hills and mountain slopes of the Western Cape and Northern Cape provinces of South Africa, blooming August to October. It readily propagates by pupping. This aloe even prefers dry winters, but I’m sure on our well-draining slopes, the winter rains will not be a problem.
Our second aloe is Aloe plicatilis,
or commonly known as fan aloe. This succulent has a fan-like arrangement of its leaves and will grow into a large multi-stemmed shrub. This species is endemic to a few mountains in the Western Cape in South Africa; and is only one of five species of tree aloes. Again, this aloe prefers well drained, sandy soil that is slightly acidic.
Our last aloe is the Spiny Aloe, Aloe africana and is from the Eastern Cape of South Africa. In its native habitat, this plant is commonly found growing on hills and flat areas with other aloes. This aloe is able to adapt to a wider range of climatic conditions, and can even grow in hot and humid areas during the summer time in Africa. The Spiny Aloe is another small tree that can grow up to 6 feet in height. The leaves are considered graceful with their 2 foot long arch and sharp red teeth along the margins.
This aloe would have been available to gardeners back during the 1940s as it was first described in 1768 by the Scottish botanist Philip Miller, who was also the chief gardener at the Chelsea Physic Garden. It was grown in Europe prior to when many other aloes were described and before Linnaeus establishing the binominal classification system we currently use. The specific epithet that Miller gave it is simply in reference its African origins
Brian also recommended two species
of Agaves. The first one, Agave colorata is native to the coastal region of northwestern Sonora, Mexico. The blue-gray textured leaves are undulating and have teeth along the margins with a white pattern along the face of the leaf. The leaves will form a rosette and is fairly slow growing. This plant would have been perfect for inmate gardeners serving a long sentence – it takes the plant 15 years to bloom.
The last plant to join our ranks is Agave victoriae-reginae, also called Queen Victoria agave or royal agave. This is a very striking succulent with its white streaks on very geometrical leaves. The rosette is very compact, only reaching 3 feet high when fully grown. The plant takes a good 20 to 30 years to flower, so patience is a virtue; but the leaves of this plant are really why you would grow this plant.
When new plants are introduced to the gardens, our plant inventory list is updated. The plants are listed alphabetically in an Excel spreadsheet and notes are made on where the plant was purchased from, the price, the size of the pot, where the plant was planted on Alcatraz and a column for any special notes (mostly why the plant died or why it is being planted). The list is pretty basic but it serves our purpose – to leave a record for future gardeners.
Spring is by far the best time of year to see the gardens, the island is brilliant with color and most visitors are surprised by this unexpected beauty.
Right now we have four
kinds of poppies profusely blooming. The state flower, the California poppy, Eschscholzia californica, seem to spread every year, and the bright orange almost glows on a foggy day.
It is thought that the original seeds came in with imported soil with the military in the mid-1850s. A few of the poppies in the Rose Terrace garden are a soft buttercup yellow.
The Shirley poppies, Papaver rhoeas, are looking great again this year. We grow these from seed every year and always end up with a wide variation in pinks and reds. The Shirley poppies were introduced to the island in 1924 by the California Wildflower and Spring Blossom Society as part of a beautification effort. In the early 1920s, it seems that the town of San Francisco
was not too happy with the appearance of the military prison in the middle of their beautiful Bay. Military inmates were enlisted to plant the slopes in an effort to create a cheerful face for the town.
This year, we planted a few Iceland poppies, Papaver nudicaule. These are the bright orange and yellow flowers that are typically seen in early spring.
An annual poppy that we tried this year is Papaver ‘Danebrog’. The results so far are quite impressive! A brilliant red with white splotches on the outside of the petals, the plant has reached a height of 4’ so far.
Our last poppy is another ‘stop and notice me’ plant. The fried egg looking blossoms of the Matilija poppy, Romneya coulteri, look like they are made from tissue paper. The delicate looking blooms sit at the end of thorny stems of a rather tall shrub. This California native was tough to get started but it is now fully established and is loving its location in the Prisoner Gardens.
Earth Day typically involve activities that focus on native plants and restoring habitats, but the day was also an opportunity to demonstrate that gardeners can landscape with drought tolerant non-native plants that are not invasive. Hosting a garden table with Alcatraz Cruises’ Earth Day celebration last week was a chance to highlight plants growing on Alcatraz, that while not native, are extremely well suited to the climate they have been thriving in.
From over 200 species of plants that survived the closure of the prison five plants were chosen to be on display. Each of the five plants has different adaptions to coping with drought, wind, poor soil and sun exposure.
The first plant always receives a lot of attention – Aeonium arboreum, or hens and chicks as most people call it. This succulent is able to store water in its fleshy leaves, and will drop the lower leaves when water becomes scarce. Producing few seeds, the plant mainly propagates itself by the forming roots along its stem. The roots will grow downwards, seeking any soil to root into. The plant is able to thrive in poor soil; I have even seen a massive clump of aeonium growing out of 5 inches of debris that had accumulated on top of a tunnel entrance.
Another popular succulent is Persian carpet. This little beauty is coloring the hillsides of the island pink right now. As tiny as the leaves are, they store water and the slightly dimpled leaves reflect light. The ice plant is great for stabilizing poor soils. Although an ice plant, this little guy is not the common invasive ice plant that is often seen along freeways.
A common garden plant in the 1940s and 50s was Pelargoniums, commonly known as geraniums. Pelargoniums are from the Southern Hemisphere and are from the
Mediterranean regions of South Africa. Five different cultivars survived on the island. The rough leaves reflect light, as well as the plant will drop its lower leaves when stressed by drought. It is not known exactly how, but the scented leaves of pelargonium are thought to be a survival mechanism.
Another survivor is the common garden nasturtium. It is surprising that the fleshy green round leaves are able to cope with the strong winds and lack of water, but these annuals have been self-seeding since they were introduced in 1924. They are able to complete their life cycle by the time water is becoming scarce in the soil.
Many visitors are surprised to see Calla lilies
thriving in the gardens. The callas, growing from a rhizome, are able to grow with the rains and then store energy for next year’s growth. The arrow shaped leaves will even funnel water to the roots. As we don’t water our callas, they do go dormant, the green leaves fading to yellow.
Growing a garden with just native plants is a wonderful goal, but gardeners can also select suitable plants for their area that are not native. Taking a walk around Alcatraz this month really shows how dramatic creating garden on a bare rock with non-natives can be.