Monthly Archives: October 2013

National Park Shutdowns – how the Gardens were Affected.

The government shutdown that closed all National Parks, and disrupted many other services lasted from October 1 through October 17.  Not only was the closure interruptive to lives and normal routines, but the gardens of Alcatraz were also affected. During the shutdown, non-government employees were allowed on the island only a few days during the 16 day closure. Being Garden Conservancy staff, the two gardeners were in a race to water and care for the 4.5 acres of gardens before the only return boat at 4pm.

On the whole, the gardens fared well, but we still had a few casualties. New plantings were shriveling; leaves from the eucalyptus were piling up on roadways, and the original wooden

The original wooden doors fell in our absence. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The original wooden doors fell in our absence. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

doors of the garden ‘closet’ in the basement of the 1940s garden decided to fall down in our absence. With only two weeks of neglect, it is easy to imagine how the neglect of 40+ years after the prison closed in 1963 was nearly the end of these wonderful gardens.

Our drought tolerant gardens were designed to cope with the limited fresh water on the island, not the absence of gardeners to tend them. However, the plants were chosen well and most perked up again after being watered. The gardens on the west side were needed the most attention. During the shutdown, the beautiful weather dried out the soil and the plants were

Wilting Rudbeckia that were newly planted. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Wilting Rudbeckia that were newly planted. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

getting very crispy. The hebe shrub began to wilt and the asters were completed desiccated. The hebe has recovered while the asters were cut back to the ground to come back next year.

Damage to the asters that should have been in full bloom. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Damage to the asters that should have been in full bloom. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The human reaction to not being allowed in the gardens was more surprising. For the first week, having the island just to staff was actually nice (sorry to say). Cell house staff who never venture outside to the gardens were assigned to sweeping roadways and finally saw the gardens that are off the beaten path to the cell house audio tour. After a day or two of this, the visitors were missed, and for the garden staff, not having visitors to share the gardens with was tough.

Garden volunteers, many of whom are retired, suddenly found themselves without anywhere to go. Gardening on Alcatraz is largely a social outing for many people – the team of volunteers are a close knit bunch, who look forward to not only the gardening but to catch up with each other. In total we lost five volunteer days and two scheduled work groups.

Sadly for the many thousands of would-be visitors, they missed out altogether on an Alcatraz experience. The island receives roughly 5000 visitors a day, many of whom are from other parts of the world. A trip to San Francisco isn’t complete unless they see Alcatraz and the other Golden Gate National Recreational Area sites that make the Bay Area so wonderful to visit.

Unfortunately, the appreciation reception for the florilegium exhibit was to be held for 100 guests the evening of October 1. Needless to say, this fundraiser for the gardens had to be cancelled. This was particularly disappointing after so much work had gone into planning both the exhibit and the reception. As well, a visiting group of conference attendees that had been organized by the National Tropical Botanical Garden to visit the gardens on October 5 had to be cancelled.

As the shutdown continued, access to the island for staff slowed down and then halted.  As we finished this work week, we are all caught up with sweeping, tidying and watering the gardens. All the volunteers and staff were in a joyous spirit!

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It’s a Girl!

Alcatraz garden volunteers have faithfully been monitoring selected native plants on the island since February as part of the California Phenology Project.

The native plants have been scrutinized at least twice a week for growth of leaves, flower buds, open flowers, pollen release, fruits, ripe fruits and seed/fruit drop. For each of these observations, a quantitative estimate is given. Among the native plants that have been closely watched is Coyote brush, Baccharis pilularis.

Plants are fascinating to grow for whatever reasons the gardener finds rewarding – the promise of food, the enjoyment of the flowers, providing habitat, or just for the fun of it. For the phenology watchers, learning each plant secrets has its own rewards that only come after months of observing. The four coyote brush on the island have finally revealed the secret of their sex to us! Alcatraz has two males and two female plants.

Everyone knows that (most) plants have flowers, but many people may not realize that the flowers have male and female parts, and in some cases, that the male and female flowers are on separate plants.

The coyote brush is one of the plants that have the male and female flowers on separate plants. This is known as being dioecious, meaning to have two houses in Greek. The opposite is to have the reproductive parts on one plant, or in one house, being monoecious. What is the difference between the male and female flowers? The male flowers contain the pollen, held on the anthers, while the female flowers open to reveal the stigma and

Female flower. Photo courtesy of Blue Planet Biomes.

Female flower. Photo courtesy of Blue Planet Biomes.

style. Bees or other insects will take pollen from the male and will brush the pollen on the female flowers in their effort to gather nectar. The female flowers are oblong with a narrow opening at the top. Inside, the pollen will land on the stigma and ‘travel’ down the style to the reach the ovary where the seeds will ripen. Once the seeds are ripe, the seeds will be dispersed by the wind carrying the fluffy tufts away. On Alcatraz, there is a lot of wind, so the seeds are dispersed quickly. 

The first male plant began to flower on July 17 and finished flowering September 25.The females flowered next, while the second male plant began to flower September 25 and is still flowering. It is interesting to note that the

Male flower_Photo courtesy of Blue Planet Biomes.

Male flower_Photo courtesy of Blue Planet Biomes.

male plants are growing on different sides of the island, and have different flowering times. Maybe after a few years of observations, we can draw more conclusions about why this is. By flowering at different times, the cottony female ‘seeds’ are released and float on the wind to be carried away to reach a distant male. This helps to increase the genetic variation amongst a plant population – a cool evolution trick. 

Can you think of other plants that have male and female flowers on separate plants?

Here are a few – holly, gingko, kiwi vines and mulberries. Knowing which plants have separate male and female flowers will help gardeners plan their garden. For instance, if you wish for bright red holly berries, you must plant a female bush, but you will also need a male to fertilize it. Or, you should also take into consideration garden maintenance – a messy female gingko tree will drop the fruit or even the female coyote brush may be too messy for some people’s liking. 

At any rate, plants can continue to amaze, just take the time to notice them.

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