Author Archives: Shelagh Fritz

Parade Ground rubble life.

There are many sea birds that call Alcatraz home. Western Gulls make up the majority of the birds with around 2000 nesting on the parade ground at the south end of the island. The parade ground will be closing to allow these birds to raise their young on February 1st to mid September.

During the penitentiary days, families of the guards also called the parade ground home. Many of the families lived in apartment buildings and tended gardens. The apartments were torn down by the government after the island was occupied by the Native Americans from 1969 to 1971 and the rubble was left.

Chasmanthe growing in the ruins. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

From the remaining ruins, new life does spring. Like elsewhere on the island, the neglected gardens were overrun with aggressive ivy, honeysuckle and blackberries. The tough conditions on the parade ground allow for only the most determined plants to survive.

Aeoniums on foundation wall. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Taking a walk around the rubble piles, it is hard not to be impressed with how the Aeoniums have found niches for themselves. Spilling over concrete walls, these plants are thriving without soil, no summer water and very windy conditions.

Aeoniums growing from rubble pile. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The photo opportunities alone warrant a visit to the island before this intriguing part of the island closes until September.

Posted in History, Plants | 1 Comment

Greenhouse Propagation

With the chilly and rainy weather of winter, a cozy place to work is inside the island’s cedar greenhouse located in the Rose Terrace Garden below the water tower. The temperature of the greenhouse averages 50 F during the day, even though it is in shade for most of the day.

 We are busy sowing seeds for winter annuals and bulb cover for the spring. Volunteers have helped sow flats of Calundula, Lobularia, and Shirley poppies (Papaver rhoeas). We have also started summer annuals of zinnias and hollyhocks.

Calundula seedlings in the greenhouse. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 A fun experiment was collecting and sowing seed from the survivor artichoke. Sarah Dominsky, an intern with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, harvested the thistle seed head from the garden affectionately called the Toolshed Terraces in November.

Sarah harvesting the artichoke seeds. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Out of more than 50 seeds sown, only one actually germinated!  This one little plant is being fussed over and was potted up into a larger sized pot last week. To help preserve the genetic material of island survivor plants, we are able to collect seeds and take cuttings of plant material. With the completion and dedication of the greenhouse to Carola Ashford this past April, we have been able to grow our own annuals, propagate perennials and continue the tradition of propagation on the island.

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Alcatraz Island Hardiness zone

The chilly weather this week has many Californians bundled up inside. The temperature on Alcatraz is moderated by the San Francisco Bay and we are very fortunate to be frost free; but the dampness, wind, and fog can still make any time of the year feel cold. San Francisco is in United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Hardiness zone 10 and zone 17 to residents of western U.S.A. who refer to the Sunset climate zones.

The USDA revised the plant hardiness zone map in 1965 and again in 1990. The 11 zones aim to show the lowest temperatures that can be expected. Plants are rated for which minimum zone they can survive in.

Sunset Magazine created a 24 zone climate map for the thirteen Western states. These zones are much more detailed and precise as “they factor in not only winter minimum temperatures, but also summer highs, lengths of growing seasons, humidity, and rainfall patterns to provide a more accurate picture of what will grow there.”(

Micro climates exist even on a small island like Alcatraz. This week, with the wind coming from the north, there are a few gardens that volunteers and staff gravitate towards on chilly days. The southwest facing inmate gardens that usually get the brunt of the summer winds and fog are the perfect gardens to bask in during the winter sunshine. The low winter sun casts a chilly shadow on the east side of the island for most of the day.

West side Toolshed Terrace gardens in sunshine. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

East side of the island in mid-day shade. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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Volunteers make 2010 a great year on the Rock

With over 4.5 acres of tended landscape and just one and a half Garden Conservancy staff gardeners to care for them, the Gardens of Alcatraz depend on dedicated volunteers to keep the gardens looking their best for the 1.3 million visitors a year. This past year, volunteers were involved in building a greenhouse, composting, repairing masonry, propagating, weeding, watering, planting, and guiding visitors through the gardens.

In 2010, 739 volunteers donated an amazing 7725.5 hours of their time to care for the gardens.

These hours are from the 117 individual volunteers that came out to the island on the regular Wednesday and Friday morning work sessions. Many of these volunteers have been gardening on the Rock since the Alcatraz Historic Garden Project began back in 2003. The gardens are also fortunate to have a steady stream of new volunteers interested in learning more about gardening, new to the city, or are just looking for something different to donate their time to.

Renata tending her roadside bed. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Kathy and Melissa weeding oxalis. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Contributing to the year’s total, 49 work groups from 42 different companies and organizations also came out to get involved in their community. Thanks to their efforts, overgrowth clearing takes a half day rather than a week of one person tackling the challenge.  

Thank you to everyone who made 2010 a success!

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Weeding season is here

The much anticipated winter rains that bring a lush green to the island mark another “season” in the gardens – the weeding season. The most prolific weed on the island is Oxalis pes-caprae, commonly known as sourgrass or Bermuda buttercup. It is native to South Africa and highly invasive in California, especially along the coast.

How oxalis came to be on Alcatraz is not known. However, it is thought that the bright yellow winter flowers of oxalis were ideal to plant with the summer blooming pink Persian carpet, Drosanthemum floribundum.

While this planning of sequential garden bloom is clever, past ornamental plant introductions often turn out to be problematic choices.

Drosanthemum and Oxalis growing together. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

To maintain the Persian carpet and to keep it from being choked out, volunteer gardeners will be spending countless hours on the south facing cell house slope from now until April.

Volunteer gardeners weeding Oxalis. Photo by Melissa Harris

Weeding oxalis is no easy feat but not without rewards. Oxalis grows from a corm from a depth of one inch to over nine. Digging out the corm is the key to removing the weed once and for all, and the satisfaction of pulling out the entire corm is very rewarding. I often find myself holding up the offending corm and showing it off proudly to the volunteers, as usually it’s only other weeders who can fully appreciate the accomplishment. In addition to the sheer pleasure of weeding for hours, enjoying views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge, chatting with visitors who are also admiring the view, and occasionally eavesdropping on conversations cannot be beat.

View of the Golden Gate Bridge. Photo by Shelagh FritzView of the Bay Bridge and San Francisco skyline. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

View of the Bay Bridge and the city skyline. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Posted in Plants, Rehabilitation, Volunteers | 1 Comment

Heirloom daffodils begin their dazzling display

Over 200 species of plants managed to survive on the island without any care after the federal prison closed in 1963. Among these hardy plants are several bulbs that are adapted for the dry summers and wet winters of a Mediterranean climate.

Freddie Reichel, the first secretary to Warden Johnson from 1934 to 1941, was one of the first federal penitentiary employees to voluntarily care for the gardens. One of his favorite plants was the daffodil. Through his effort, inmate gardeners soon took over caring for the landscape and even began hybridizing daffodils. Reichel visited the island years later and an inmate “showed Reichel where he had hidden his treasured hybridized narcissus, for it seemed that other residents thought they were too pretty to stay in the gardens.” (Gardens of Alcatraz book by John Hart, Michael Boland, Russell A. Beatty, Roy Eisenhardt, 1996)

While picking the flowers is not permitted in the National Park, visitors can enjoy the sight and smell of these garden treasures. Paperwhites are already in bloom. For the next two weeks, the fragrance of Narcissus ‘Galilee’ will greet visitors as they make their way up to the cell house. Flower buds of Narcissus ‘Grand Soleil d’Or’ are ready to burst open.

Narcissus 'Grand Soliel d'Or' in bloom. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

This heirloom bulb produces up to fifteen small flowers on each flower stem and a walk through Officers’ Row garden is not to be missed when these tiny flowers are in full bloom.

 To complement the existing bulbs, additional daffodils were planted in the fall of 2006. With each passing year, they produce a better display. Officers’ Row is planted with ten different cultivars of daffodils that bloom from now until mid-March. 

Narcissus 'Flower Record'. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Narcissus 'Delibes'. Photo by Shelagh Fritz


While other parts of the country are cold and snowy, a visit to Alcatraz to experience the sight and smell of these bulbs will lift winter weary spirits.  

Posted in History, Plants | 1 Comment

From bare rock to lush ferns

Location, location, location. Alcatraz Island, situated in the middle of the entrance to the San Francisco Bay, has always been prime real estate. In 1846, the military recognized a fortress strategically placed on the island would protect the bay against the threats of the impending Civil War.

The bare rock of Alcatraz

On the naturally bare island with only a few sparse grasses, soil was needed to hold the cannons in place ringing the steep cliffs. In 1869, soil was imported from nearby Angel Island and with the soil came seeds of native plants: Baccharis pilularis (coyote bush), Eschscholzia californica (California poppy), Rhamnus californica (coffeeberry), and spores from several types of ferns.

Recent winter rains have caused the island to erupt into a lush green oasis after the dry summer months. Ferns and moss drape over walls, staircases and down hillsides.

Moss growing on the stairs in Officers' Row. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

There are four species of ferns that grow well on the island: Polypodium scouleri (leathery polypody), Polypodium californicum (California polypody), Polystichum munitum (western sword fern), and Pentagramma triangularis (goldback fern).

The fern wall in the rain covered with California polypody ferns. Photo by Melissa Harris

All of these ferns thrive in moist sea air. The leathery polypody and the western sword fern are evergreen, while the California polypody and goldback fern are only appreciated during the rainy winter months.

A mass of leather leaf ferns grow out of the rock with a few California polypody ferns and the western sword fern below. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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Volunteers Uncover Hidden Terraces

Whaleboaters on Alcatraz

Members of the Bay Area Whaleboaters Association. Photo by Corny Foster

While Alcatraz is a relatively small 22.5-acre island, a few historic gardens tended long ago remain hidden; they have yet to be cleared of overgrowth vegetation, documented, and perhaps one day restored.

This past weekend, volunteers from the Bay Area Whaleboaters Association worked to reclaim a set of terraces that lead from the dock to the parade ground. These terraces were first gardened by Freddie Reichel in the early 1940s. Mr. Reichel was the secretary to Alcatraz Warden Johnson. Impressed with the gardens left by the military, he worked in his spare time to maintain their beauty. He began to tend these terraces behind his home.

Prior to any removal of vegetation, we investigate the history of the area. There should be some documentation that the area was once a garden. Evidence of a past garden can be found in historic photos, oral history interviews, old maps of the island, and existing ornamental plants and hardscape features. In this case, old photos, surviving ornamental plants, and extensive terraces confirmed our belief that the area had once been gardened.

Alcatraz inmate gardener

A guard supervises an inmate gardener clearing the same stairs in 1955. Photo by Bergen.

The Whaleboaters revealed dry-stacked terraces and cleared the staircase that was becoming covered with eucalyptus leaves. They made a few interesting discoveries – a pink radio, several rubber boots and surviving ornamental plants such as Euonymus japonica and an unidentified rose.

found radio and boot

Motorola radio and rubber boot found in the overgrowth. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The Whaleboaters did a fantastic job revealing this hidden corner of the island. From the dock, visitors can see for themselves the newly revealed terraces and the staircase that once led to the parade ground.

Before and after. Photos by Shelagh Fritz

Posted in Artifact, Gardens of Alcatraz, Rehabilitation, Volunteers | 4 Comments

Welcome to the Gardens of Alcatraz blog

The Island of Alcatraz

The Island of Alcatraz, Photo by Elizabeth Byers

I am very excited to begin the Gardens of Alcatraz very first blog!

Alcatraz Island receives more than 1.3 million visitors a year from all over the world; I have been lucky enough to speak with many visitors who came to the island when the gardens were overrun with blackberries and are amazed upon returning years later to an island that is blooming with tended gardens. The Garden Conservancy is proud of what we have been able to accomplish since restoration work began in 2003 with our project partners — the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. With garden volunteers working alongside staff, over four acres of historic gardens from the military and penitentiary eras have been brought back to life.

Chasmanthe floribunda

Chasmanthe floribunda, Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Through this blog, I invite you to follow our progress — recent volunteer activity, new plantings, new artifact finds – and discover the softer side of the Rock.

Have you been to the gardens to see the changes? If so, please let us know what you think.

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