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Monthly Archives: November 2013
Two similar plants that often get confused are mallow (Lavatera) and hollyhock (Alcea). A quick glance at these two and it is easy to see how they can be mistaken for each other.
Both plants belong to the same family of Malvaceae, and so they do share many common characteristics. The flower is the most obvious similarity. Resembling a hibiscus flower, the lavatera is very showy in shades of
pink, red and white. The flower of the hollyhock is also very pretty and in similar shades. Both plants can be annuals, biennials or perennials, although the Lavatera is more often seen as a shrub in gardens while the hollyhock is typically a biennial with a stalk of flowers during its second year.
The hollyhock, with its 60 species, is native to Asia and Europe while the Lavatera, with 25 species, is more of a world traveler. Its range is in the Mediterranean region, central and eastern Asia, Australia and from California to Mexico. Looking at the adaptability of the Lavatera, its no surprise that it can tolerate a wide range of soil to grow in. It actually prefers sandy, rocky or even clay soil in coastal regions (perfect for Alcatraz!). The hollyhock is a bit more fussy preferring rich, well drained garden soil.
On Alcatraz, we have introduced the mallow,
Lavatera assurgentiflora. Native to the Channel Islands, it has naturalized to the coastal areas of Southern California. We have had it in our Prisoner Gardens on the west side of the island for over a year now and it is doing extremely well. The shrubs have grown to 4 feet tall and wide, and have been consistently blooming for most of the summer and is still going strong.
Most of our hollyhocks have set seed already and we will have to replant them again next spring.
Both hollyhocks and mallows are good for hummingbird and butterflies.
We often tell visitors the common name of the Lavatera is mallow, which then leads to them asking if this is where marshmallows come from? The answer is ‘no’, marshmallows were originally derived from the plant Althaea officinalis, native to Egypt, but it is a member of the Malvaceae family.
Both Lavatera and hollyhock fit nicely with the cottage garden style of the Prisoner gardens with our mid1940s time period and we are already looking at seed catalogues for next year to add more to our gardens.
As visitors arrive on Alcatraz, they are greeted by a Park Service ranger who gives them an orientation to the island. The ranger needs to keep the crowd entertained until the entire boat is empty before they can dispense the vital information of where to get the audio tour and a few words of safety.
Each ranger shares different snippets of the island’s history, little teasers to keep people occupied. Having listened to the ‘dock talks’ for more than 6 years now, I’ve heard most of them and to be honest, it’s where I’ve learned most of the more interesting pieces of Alcatraz history.
One of my favorite talks is a true or false quiz. The ranger makes a statement, and then gets people to raise their hands if they think it is true or not. One of the questions is ‘True or False – Alcatraz hosts plants from every continent except Antarctica’. There is usually a split amongst the crowd of those that believe it is true, and those that doubt the statement. But, the answer is TRUE!
Even before we began to introduce plants
to restore the gardens, the plant survey done in 2005 found that there were more than 200 species of plants still surviving on Alcatraz from the gardening days of the military and the federal prison.
The range in plants from the different continents is quite surprising – how could plants that are from drastically different parts of the world all survive on a tiny 22 acre island?
This is one of the aspects of the story of gardens that I love – these surviving plants, introduced years ago, could survive on their own because they each found the right microclimate on Alcatraz to make it.
Here is a partial list of the surviving plants by continents:
North America – Monterrey cypress, Agave americana, Douglas iris, various ferns
South America – Nasturtium, Fuchsia
Asia – bearded iris, Fig tree,
Europe – Bear’s breeches, perennial sweet pea, periwinkle, ivy
Australia – Australian tea tree, New Zealand Christmas tree, Eucalyptus, Cordyline
Africa – Lily of the Nile, Chasmanthe, Pelargonium, Crocosmia
Not only do we have plants from around the world, but we also have visitors from around the world. Again, with the exception of Antarctica.
Gardeners tend to be sharers, whether it be gardening advice, seeds, surplus zucchini or to just share their gardens with others. The inmate island gardeners were no different. They shared flowers with island residents on Sundays by leaving bouquets at the dock, and they traded seeds and gardening advice back and forth amongst themselves. However, one thing that was not permitted on Alcatraz was to visit each other’s gardens.
Inmates Elliot Michener, who gardened the West side Prisoner gardens, and his friend, Richard Franseen, who tended the Rose Terrace on the East side of the island, were not allowed to visit each other’s gardens. With five overlapping years of served time on the small island, the priviledge of enjoying their friend’s garden was withheld – another small reminder to the men that they were still in prison.
Gardeners from around the world now visit the island to see the restored gardens. On behalf of Elliot and Richard, it is our pleasure to share the gardens with them.
On the reverse side, it is also fun to go and visit gardens and be lucky enough to get the ‘special tour’. The horticulture world is pretty small, whether it is the Bay Area, USA or even worldwide, chances are there is a connection that will add a spark to your trip.
I was lucky enough to have Marion Brenner ask me if I could show a couple of her friends from France the gardens while they visited San Francisco. Marion is a longtime friend of the Garden Conservancy and professional photographer and landscape designer. Her work has illustrated many articles in garden magazines and publications, including Martha Stewart Living. Delighted to be asked, I mentioned that I actually had a trip planned to France. Marion quickly put me in touch with her friend, Catherine Delvaux, editor of the bi-monthly garden magazine Detente jardin, who had been showing Marion around Paris for her upcoming book on Parisian gardens.
Catherine generously offered to pick us
up in Paris and drive us to Monet’s Giverny garden – a garden high on my ‘must see list’ While Catherine knew the head gardener, he was pretty busy and we never had a chance to meet. We learned that upon undertaking his position, he had researched which heirloom varieties were available during Monet’s time and has since recreated overflowing beds of color. Monet grouped plants by color so he could study the effect of the lighting on them. In fact, he chose to make Giverny his home because of the quality of light in the valley. Seeing the ‘real life’ version of the lily pond was quite impressive.
Before leaving the tiny village of Giverny, Catherine took us for quick respite from the warm day in a shaded restaurant courtyard just down the street. The restaurant actually had an entire hillside garden behind it that had the starting signs of being neglected and on its way to being overgrown. The little garden had its own charm and not a single person in it, despite the busloads of visitors just down the street.
Catherine next took us to an out of the way garden treasure by the name of Le Jardin Plume. This country garden is also not as popular as the famous Giverny, but it should be. A couple had bought three hectacres of farmland in 1996 and have slowly turned it into many garden rooms separated by shaped boxwood hedges.
Each room is a surprise – we wandered through butterfly gardens, prairie grasses grown in quadrants, and each room offered unique plant combinations. We were able to meet with the owners and I really wished I had paid more attention in my grammar school French classes, but we managed to have a full conversation. Even in French, the word Alcatraz needs no translation.
Being a tourist instead of being a staff member at a famous destination was an eye opener. It is really too easy when we are at work to just focus on getting the tasks done, but on my trip, I’ll always remember the staff that took the extra time to chat or to point out something, or even to just help with directions. So, please, ask the staff and garden volunteers questions! We do love to help and more importantly, we really want to share our gardens with you.