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Category Archives: Gardens of Alcatraz
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.
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
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
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.
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!
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
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 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.
Way back in April, our gladiolus corms arrived in the mail from Old House Gardens. We tucked the little corms into the raised bed in front of the greenhouse and have been waiting expectantly for the heirloom flowers to appear.
Over the past two weeks, the flower stalks have emerged from the center of the fan shaped leaves, revealing their bright blossoms a little bit each day. Even though they were all planted the same day, at the same depth, they are not all blooming at the same time, perhaps some are in more rush than others, while the others prefer to take their time.
It would be hard to pick a favorite flower, they are all very pretty, and I can see why this old fashioned flower continues to be popular.
‘Carolina Primrose’, introduced to
the plant trade in 1908 is a small and graceful gladiolus that multiplies each year without much care. According to the growers at Old House Gardens, the corms survive in zone 5! Like many heirloom plants, this corm was collected at an old home site and lucky for us it was found, as it was named ‘Bulb of the Year’ in Spring 2008.
‘Dauntless’ is every bit its name – pink with a dramatic splash of ruby in the throat. This corm is one of the oldest traditional gladiolus offered by Old House Gardens.
‘Bibi’ was offered to the plant trade in 1954. Described
on the Old House Gardens’ website as ‘exotically patterned in a style that dates back to Victorian days, this small-flowered, vibrant pink cutie is randomly flecked with deep rose’. The flower easily blends in with a Victorian garden of the military years or with the hippy flair of the 1960s.
The frosty pink Gladiolus ‘Friendship’ is listed as a ‘landmark pink that has won every prize there is for glads’. In fact, “60-some years after it first bloomed for the legendary Carl Fischer it’s still considered world-class”.
The flower of ‘Melodie’ was a pleasant
surprise, even though I had seen the photo of it before I ordered it. I always wonder if the flower color is enhanced in the plant catalogues, but the photos were right! It is a true pink with a dark scarlet center that is edged in yellow.
‘Contentment’ is a rare corm from the 1957, and despite being once the world’s most popular lavender gladiolus, it has almost stopped being grown by gardeners.
The cute flower of ‘Boone’ will just
leave you wanting to grow more of them. This little guy was rescued from an abandoned homestead in the Appalachians near Boone, North Carolina. It has graceful blooms of soft apricot and it is hardy through zone 6 and perhaps 5 according to Old House Gardens reports.
The Abyssinian gladiolus was documented in the 1996 book Gardens of Alcatraz as growing on the island. The plant had long disappeared when the Alcatraz Historic Gardens project began in 2003, so it was finally time to bring this graceful glad back to the island. Introduced in 1888, perhaps it was grown by some of the military wives in cutting gardens. Collected from the mountains of Ethiopia in 1844, it reached America by
1888 when it was featured as brand new in Garden and Forest magazine. Formerly Acidanthera, it is now called Gladiolus callianthus ‘Murielae’. We ordered 100 of the little corms, most are planted in one raised bed in front of the rose terrace greenhouse, it will be a great site when they are all in bloom.
Our rarest purchase was the
‘Lilac & Chartreuse’ gladiolus. Introduced in, 1960, it is a shame that it is not grown more. The flower is pretty eccentric, just like the 1960s themselves – ruffled and lavender with the chartreuse thrown in.
I hope to add more heirloom gladiolus every year and build up our collection of these wonderful old favorites, and hopefully entice visitors to grow them too.
Winter is the usual time for us to do big garden renovations; with the winter rains, the absence of birds and fewer visitors, it is the ideal time to make changes in the garden beds. However, we had one garden area that just could not wait another couple of months.
Our little ‘chapel bed’ along the main roadway desperately needed some TLC. In the spring, this garden looks fantastic and is often the first bed where visitors stop and say ‘wow’ at the size of the Aeoniums. Most visitors are accustomed to seeing these ‘hens and chicks’ plants the size of a tennis ball, not basketballs, the size they easily grow to on the island.
The plantings in this bed were actually rescued plants from construction staging sites before the Alcatraz Historic Gardens Project began, way back in 2000. But after thirteen years, many of the plants were crowded, the rhizomes of the bearded iris were choking each other and the Aeoniums were getting very leggy (garden talk meaning, too high with the growth only at the tips of bare stems). The Aeoniums, both purple and green, do not look their best at this time of year – in response to the dry conditions in our Mediterranean climate, they drop their lower leaves and the remaining leaves shrivel in to hold onto any moisture they can.
The soil itself needed amending too. Each year, we have added soil to the perimeter of the bed, but could only apply topdressing, not incorporate our rich compost into the soil.
In a bold move, we decided it was time to clear out all the plants, saving the existing Solanum marginatum, Drosanthemum and the shrubby Hebe. Karolina and a few volunteers dug out all the plants, taking cuttings of the succulents and selecting the healthiest iris rhizomes to replant. In preparation, we had been taken cuttings of the Aeonium and were growing them in the greenhouse.
The new plants were set out in roughly the same arrangement as before. We also added in tall Verbena bonariensis to give some height and some billowy color through the summer and fall. We also removed some non-historic Gazania rigens along the front edge that always required water and planted legacy Pelargonium ‘Prince Bismarck’ and heirloom Pelargonium ‘Apricot’ that has done very well for us in west side Prisoner Gardens.
We will need to water the new plants until the winter rains begin but, this drought tolerant selections should be just fine with weekly watering until they are established.
Nurturing plants to soften the starkness of the prison island has its challenges. The island’s past residents certainly must have realized this, but they were determined to coax blooms from the Rock.
We are following in the footsteps of those early gardens and I find myself often wondering ‘how did they do it’, and being impressed with their dedication to creating beauty in this forbiding environment.
The military landscaped the main road that leads from the dock to the top of island, where the Citadel, the military fortification, once stood. They created pocket beds and even used cannon balls to line a parapet wall in front of the commanders’ homes, known as Officers’ Row. When the military left the island in 1933, these homes would later be turned into gardens in 1942. To move away from the military look, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, removed the cannon balls and built a trough planter along the entire wall – 330 feet in length! The maximum security surely must have been taken with the gardens left behind by the military to go to these lengths.
In 2005, the trough planter was the first garden area to be restored and it was replanted with ivy leaf geraniums that would have been available to gardeners back in the 1940s. We quickly learned the challenges of gardening on the Rock, when the resident gulls pulled each plant out!
We have gotten smarter since then, and now have heavy guage wires to protect our precious plants. But the challenges did not stop there.
Luckily, the trough is located on the leeward side of the island, so wind does not dry out the plants. However, the trough, being made of brick and only one foot in depth and tends to dry out quickly in the hot summer sun. A drip irrigation line had been installed for weekly waterings, but then we were also reminded that water will find the easiest path to drain to – the water tended to run down the inside of the trough, before finding a drainage hole and seep away – doing little more than just wetting the sides of the trough, and not soaking the roots of the plants at all. We now alternate hand water and the drip irrigation to ensure that the plants are getting enough water. When we do use the drip irrigation, we also turn the water on for 10 minutes, then off for 20 minutes, then on again for 10 minutes to allow the water to soak into the soil instead of just running out any cracks. As a plus though, the dripping trough supports ferns, hydrangea shrubs and fuschias that are growing below the trough.
Feeding the pelargoniums is a must. We enrich the trough soil every year with our compost, however, regular fertilizing with kelp emulsion keeps the flowers blooming and the leaves green all summer.
The steady maintenance of deadheading the spent blooms is enough to keep a crew of volunteers busy. Aside from this expected maintenance, our gull friends insist of sitting on top of the wire cages (I guess this gives the best lookout). We usually have a few broken stems each week that need to be pruned off.
Despite all this work, the gardening is a labor of love with rich rewards.
Our upcoming Florilegium of watercolor paintings of island plants will also be showcasing written poetry about the gardens. The poems are a collection of ‘Compare and Compose’ Poetry that was put together by a National Park Service intern in 1992. Mary Schumacher organized an interpretive program where visitors to the island spent a couple of hours walking the island and gaining inspiration from the landscape.
The poems have had little mention since they were written over two decades ago, but Mary has held onto the treasured poems. The gardens have changed dramatically since inspiring the writings, but the spirit of the gardens still remain – cherished plants brought to a desolate island to provide beauty, the neglect of the gardens, the determination of the plants to hold onto the life they had.
With the poems being presented alongside the art, at long last, they will be read and provoke thought once again about the importance of plants and beauty in our every day lives.
Now the ice plant
lives on the cliffs
of another age.
In the purple light
are also purple.
When the rock it hangs on
begins to crumble
piece by piece
breaking to new form…
the plant cannot
remember another age.
Where men denied the privileges
Once more the priviledges of nature
were denied as well
It did not work
As well as men cannot be made
Control of nature is not within men’s
Alcatraz – where “destruction” has
not become the final word
Alcatraz – where nature survived and
gave rise to new beauty
-Lars Pohlmeier, Bremen, Germany; September 24, 1992
Beauty within the Beast
How can there be so much life
surrounding so much that is
Mother Nature will prevail
-Larry Neal, Oklahoma City, OK; September 26, 1992
Sometimes it is not easy to uphold our garden goal of having every visitor amazed by the beauty of the gardens and to experience high horticultural standards. We wish that each of the 1.3 million visitors to Alcatraz a year (5000 per day) be able to appreciate the gardens regardless of the time of year -– whether they see them in the lushness of spring, or the dry and windy autumn.
The garden restoration is now in its tenth year, and we have really come to know the difficult areas of the gardens. The obvious is the windy west side, but even this side, through trial and error (much how the inmates learned), is for the most part flourishing at all times of the year.
One challenging garden area remains though – the series of terraces built by the inmates in the 1940s. Facing the Golden Gate Bridge, this area is a haven for hummingbirds and sparrows in the spring with the overflowing terraces of Echium and Chasmanthe, the complementary blue and orange colors standing out against the backdrop of the cell house.
The sandy soil has received annual topdressings of our rich compost for the past 3 years, but the soil still tends to dry out and become compacted mid-summer, despite hardly anyone walking on these beds.
These terraces do hold many of the survivor plants on the island – Echium, Chasmanthe, Aeonium, Artichoke, spuria Iris, Acanthus mollis and even Rose ‘Russeliana’ – so we know that plants can grow and thrive in these soils. The trick will be to find plants that add to the existing palette to have a garden to show off all year round, instead of the plants going dormant mid-July.
The terraces were rehabilitated in 2009
as part of the West Side Treatment Plan. At the time, we examined historic photos to identify plants that the inmates may have been growing. The photos clearly show gladiolus neatly staked and plenty of unidentifiable low growing mounds. We replanted the top terrace that runs along the parapet wall with Pelargonium ‘Brilliant’, an island survivor. The plantings did well up until last year, when sections started to die out and we eventually removed them all. This year, we are experimenting with a purchase from Annie’s Annuals – Dicliptera suberecta ‘Uraguayan Firecracker Plant’. With deep weekly waterings, the 4” potted perennials are off to a good start.
Bill Noble, Director of Preservation for the Garden Conservancy, visited the gardens last month and this area was examined. Bill visits each of the preservation projects several times each year and lends his expertise and guidance to the gardens. Bill’s perspective is a valuable resource, as often, gardeners need some ‘outside’ advice. Bill suggested tying in the established plantings of succulents on the slopes above the roadway. The succulents would be an ideal choice to give a garden that has year round interest and that is drought and wind tolerant.
Gladiolus will likely not be making a come-back in this garden bed – we can only be impressed with the skills of the inmates to grow such beauties in this tough spot.
Compost guru Dick Miner has been cultivating our island compost for five years. In his retirement, he found a way to apply his career skills working in a lab for AIDS research with his hobby of gardening. In doing so, Dick has developed a deep passion turning our island green ‘waste’ back into soil.
Proudly, Dick’s Alcatraz compost was awarded the blue ribbon in the Marin County Fair’s ‘Best Backyard Compost’ competition this past holiday weekend.
Dick began to work on this winning batch of compost back in February. Actually, he began to think about this year’s competition the day after he won first place last year. Dick wanted to add food scraps into this year’s batch to increase the organic matter content. We had been experimenting with collecting vegetable and fruit scraps from the island’s staff lunches, but, after collecting the scraps for several months, we found that we were not obtaining desirable contents in the bins. So, Dick enlisted fellow garden volunteers to bring their scraps from home.
The batch was cultivated with care – being turned once a week to aerate and watering weekly to maintain the moisture content to a moist, but not wet feel. Our soil thermometer registered temperatures from the center of the 4’x4’ pile between 120F and 150F. These temperatures were maintained for two months.
How did Dick know when the compost was done? Dick’s biggest pointer on knowing when you can use the compost is when you can’t tell what you had started with.
A natural teacher, Dick shared his love for his work with a microbiology class from San Francisco University High School this past May. The class is a survey class in microbiology that had been learning about bacteria, fungi, and viruses. The visit was an opportunity for the students to learn about microbiology as applied to decomposition. After a short lecture about the many organisms and processes involved in compost production, the class worked together to turn the compost piles. Turning the pile of compost, they could see first-hand the workings of a healthy compost pile that was teaming with microbes and earthworms—and even feel the heat from the decomposing vegetation. I’m sure the kids were appreciative that they were learning from a compost master.
When the Garden Conservancy started work to bring the Gardens of Alcatraz back to life after forty years of neglect, one of the fascinating aspects of the project was the plant life still surviving on the island. In 2005, an island wide survey was done and we found just over 200 different species of plants!
As most gardeners are also ‘list makers’, and like keeping track of new plantings and when the plants bloom, we started to keep track of the flowering times.
Beginning in 2009, we made simple lists by the season of what was in bloom. Our spreadsheets have gotten a bit more elaborate since then. We still list each species of plant, but also record which garden it is blooming in, if the blooming is just starting, in full bloom, or is fading.
Comparing the same months and the same gardens over the years tells us some interesting facts.
The most obvious is that we have WAY more plants blooming on the island now that we did in 2009! We do try to be consistent when we take our observations – so we aim for the same week each month. In 2009, we reached our peak number of plants in bloom in the spring with 80 different plants blooming. This year, in May, we reached 156 different plants blooming – almost double from only four years ago!
The gardens are pretty much all over the island, creating microclimates of sun versus shade, leeward versus windward, and watered plants versus ‘on your own’ plants. The survivor plants are great for looking at how these microclimates affect the blooming times under these conditions.
Persian carpet is a historic island plant that can be found in most of the restored gardens around the island. The Persian carpet on the south facing slopes began to bloom in February this year but in December 2010, we had a scattering of blooms in all the different gardens. The Persian carpet finished
blooming on the south facing slopes last month but is still going strong on the East facing slopes. Planting the same plant with different sun exposures not only lengthens the blooming time, but it also allows more visitors to the island see this wonderful historic plant in bloom.
Another garden survivor that has had some subtle changes to its blooming time is Centranthus ruber, Jupiter’s Beard. In 2010, it started to bloom in the spring as it normally does and then finished in late September. Comparing the bloom times of 2012, the centranthus bloomed every month of the year!
We will also have to now start tracking the weather conditions and the amount of rain and fog to really get a better picture of why the plants are blooming at such different times.