Category Archives: History

The Victorian Garden: Trends and Representation on Alcatraz

Alcatraz’s gardens were restored with the intention of being a reflection on gardening trends found from the 1830s to the 1960s. But what trends came in and out of fashion during this period? After all, much like clothing, gardening has styles, trend-setters, and certain characteristics that allows gardening historians to identify what was popular at the time.

Photograph of a tea party on Alcatraz. Victorian Era Gardens were used for entertainment purposes. Photographer unknown

The Victorian Era, named after Queen Victoria, was a period that ran from 1837 to 1901. This was one of the first times authorities made an effort to provide public gardens in England. The reasoning being the gardens would improve the manners of the lower class. The wives of soldiers on Alcatraz had a similar desire. They wanted to bring a sense of civilization and order to “The Rock”. There was also a need to ease boredom. With little to do while on Alcatraz and with the new soil and sand, they could begin to garden.

The Victorian Garden has three major characteristics: furniture, statues, and plants. The furniture used in Victorian gardens included benches, canopies, and pavilions. The purpose was to make the gardens feel more like a salon. It was a place to entertain and enjoy nature as well as show off to your neighbors how well you were doing. Statues were also used in Victorian gardens. They were mostly Greek Gods and semi-nude females. It was an attempt to invoke the classicism and culture of Ancient Greece.

Photo of climbing roses on a building on Alcatraz. Photographer unknown

The plants were where Victorian gardens started to become unique. Shades of pink, purple, and green were the most common colors. There were also many different types of plants in each garden. Thanks to globalization and imperialism, gardeners had access to more rare and exotic plants than ever. Orchids, tulips, roses, and daisies were all regulars in Victorian gardens. The rarer the plant, the more wealth you had. Another interesting style choice was the various ways these gardens were planted. There were showy, geometrically placed flowers (squares being the most popular shape, followed by triangles). Yet, there was also a call to have “wild” gardens. Creepers, ramblers, hardy shrubs and herbaceous plants emphasized the natural look. Pebbles marked the pathways and they used rocks invoked the image of wild and far off mountains.

On Alcatraz, the Rose Garden is where these Victorian trends are the strongest. The various roses are allowed to creep and ramble over concrete railings and walls. Come at the right time and you’ll see rows of various types of blue bells in both Officers’ Row and the Rose Garden. In Officers’ Row, there is a hidden cache of lavender, showing off muted greens and purples. Luckily, we don’t have to import rocks to get a “rocky” feel throughout the gardens. Alcatraz’s natural terrain already provides us with outcrops of rocks. We even kept the tradition of having rare and exotic plants in our gardens. One of the more famous examples is the Bardou Job Rose, a rose that is so rare it was thought to be extinct until it was found growing on Alcatraz in 1989.

Photograph of a rose on Alcatraz. Photo by Tyrha Delger

The Victorian Garden is one of contradictions. It is a call back to the wild, but it is characterized by geometric designs and exotic plants. It is an attempt to bring civilization and good manners to the lower classes, but it is also a sign of wealth. On Alcatraz, we try to capture the complexity and beauty in our gardens. And as the climbing roses make their way up the rocky outcrops and bloom, we capture a moment in gardening history.

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The ‘Paperwork’ Side of Gardening

I was fortunate today to be invited to the monthly meeting of the Alameda Master Gardeners to teach them the ‘paperwork’ side of gardening. It’s a side of gardening that most visitors are not aware of, even if they are gardeners themselves.


With Alcatraz being a National Historic Landmark, the National Historic Preservation Act applies to everything that is done on the island, not to mention the other roughly 2500 sites in the United States designated as National Historic Landmarks. Adopted as law in 1949 by Congress, National Historic Landmarks are nationally significant historic places designated by the Secretary of the Interior because they possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States.’ (


Section 110 and 106 of the Preservation Act set out broad responsibilities of Federal agencies and requires the agencies to take into account the effects of their undertakings on historic properties. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) does have its own team of a historic architect, historic landscape architect, archeologist and supporting staff to ensure that historic preservation is fully integrated into the ongoing programs within the Park.


Beginning the class off, I introduced the concept of a cultural landscape – special places that reveal aspects of our country’s origins and development through their form and features, and they ways they were used. The special places include a wide range of landscapes – residential gardens, parks, scenic highways, battlefield and institutional grounds.


There are 4 types of cultural landscapes – historic sites, historic designed landscapes, historic vernacular landscapes and ethnographic landscapes. Alcatraz Island is a cultural landscape and the gardens fit in the historic vernacular landscape category. This is a landscape that has evolved through use of people whose activities shaped the landscape. The landscape now reflects the physical, biological and cultural character of the everyday lives of the residents.


Alcatraz Island’s period of significance expands from 1847 to 1973. These years span the early exploration of the Bay, military fortification, including the construction of the first lighthouse on the west coast, the military prison, federal penitentiary and the early General Services Administration (GSA) caretaking, Native American Occupation and the beginning of the GSA while the island became part of the GGNRA.

Alcatraz as a military fort.

Perhaps this is where people started to doze off…but we weren’t quite done with terms and definitions.


The Secretary of the Interior has Standards for Treatments, which is a series of concepts about maintaining, repairing, and replacing historic materials, as well as designing new additions or making alterations. The standards offer general design and technical recommendations to assist in applying the standards to a specific property.


In a nerdy way, these standards are why I love my job. Using the guidelines, you can transform an overgrown historic garden into a cared for landscape once again.


Of the 4 types of treatments – preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, and reconstruction – rehabilitation was chosen for the best method for the Alcatraz gardens. “Rehabilitation is making a compatible use for a property through repair, alterations, and additions while preserving those portions of features that convey its historical, cultural, or architectural values.”


Rehabilitation fit our goal – to preserve and maintain the gardens created by those who lived on the island during its military and prison eras, and to interpret their history, horticulture, and cultural significance for visitors. The island still had over 200 species of plants, the majority of these were ornamental survivors from past residents, and plenty of remaining garden paths that gave the framework of the gardens.

Looking for evidence of a garden in 2004. Photo by Bill Noble.

With the rehabilitation treatment chosen, we had many considerations to take into account – the use of the gardens – historic, current, and proposed use for the future, archeological resources, the natural systems (nesting seabirds and we had no fresh water), interpretation of the gardens to visitors, accessibility and safety, not to mention the management and maintenance of the gardens.


Beginning in 2005, a treatment plan was written up for each garden area that reflected the military and/or federal prison eras. Each plan contained historic photos, documented current existing conditions and described the future use. Working on one area per year, we finished the scope of our project in 2010.

The view today of the Parade Ground. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The south end of the island in the 1950s. Photo by Al and Mildred Kaepple

The bulk of our work was done prior to Alcatraz Island having a Cultural Landscape Report (CLR). Most historic sites have a report that has documented all of the contributing features of a landscape. However, the longer we waited, features of the gardens and the plants themselves were failing. We received permission to have a Cultural Landscape Inventory done, a much faster process, and with our treatment plans we moved forward.


Now, with a CLR we are able to work on areas and while we still need our plans reviewed and approved, our plans fit into the overall plan for Alcatraz Island.


Finishing off the lesson with photos of historic, before, and after photographs of the gardens, the terminology learnt earlier made sense (or at least I hoped). Just like compost is the best foundation for thriving plants, well made plans make the best foundation for gardens.


Afterwards, people came up to chat and many remarked that they had no idea there was so much history on Alcatraz. I think this quote from Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation says it best – “History is typically conveyed through books or in a classroom, but history can also be conveyed through place”.


Maybe next time just walking down the street, you’ll question why a row of trees was planted or why the fountain was placed where it was, or why a random granite block is in the sidewalk? The cultural landscape is everywhere around us, just waiting to be read.

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Garden archeology

Past garden manager, Carola, is quoted in Alcatraz’s Discovery film as saying the gardening is like ‘garden archeology’. Her words perfectly described the work of clearing vegetation and finding artifacts and landscape features that had lay hidden underneath ivy and blackberries for decades.

Her words are still very true today. The garden crew has been in over their heads clearing ivy from trees and uncovering terrace walls.

Volunteers clearing ivy from terraces. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Volunteers clearing ivy from terraces. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Using the Cultural Landscape Report for Alcatraz Island as a guide, permission was granted by the Park Service to clear overgrowth from known garden areas that no one had worked in since the prison closed in 1963. As part of the approval, garden volunteers and staff attended a lecture by National Park Service Archeologists, Leo and Peter.

Leo giving his presentation to garden volunteers. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Leo giving his presentation to garden volunteers. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

With broad reaching strokes, Leo and Peter described their work across the park. San Francisco has a rich history with native settlements, missions, military history. Every time significant ground disturbance is done in the Park, this duo is on the scene. Some finds are accidents whereas others are known sites of interest. Leo described what to do in case items were found –

-take a photo with a point of reference in the background, not to zoom in on the object but give an easy way to find where the object had been found.

-fill out the paperwork that marks on a map where the object was found, and describe the item and the circumstances under which it was found

A key point was to distinguish between a single item found and a ‘feature’. A feature, as we now know, is considered a group of artifacts. In the case of finding a feature, the objects should be left in place and give Leo a call.

Barbara finding an intact bottle. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Barbara finding an intact bottle and spoon. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

All of the objects found are taken to the Presidio archives where they are cleaned, recorded, and added to the collection. For garden artifacts, Leo has been marking the locations of the items on an overall map. Overtime, the pinpoint locations of objects give a big picture of significant areas, slow archeology in a sense.

Most people think of Alcatraz as only a federal prison, but the island has layers of history that equals the city of San Francisco, where the story of the gardens is woven throughout. Seeing the island through Leo’s eyes was really, well, eye-opening. Landscape features that we always walk by, were given an explanation, or at least a theory that made us all think – ah, that makes sense. For example, many parts of the island had a whitewash over the bricks, stone and concrete. The whitewash façade has fallen away in many areas, but the anchor holes of the façade remain.

Bolts holding whitewash facade in place along the Main Roadway. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Bolts holding whitewash facade in place along the Main Roadway. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Today, the holes look like planting pockets. We had always wondered about the evenly spaced shallow holes. They obviously weren’t big enough for a large plant with roots, or even to hold moisture during the dry summer. With Leo giving his theory of the holes being the anchor points, the holes suddenly made sense. By chance, the cliff below the Warden’s house is being stabilized with the addition of fake rock being anchored with long bolts – just like was done long ago.

Holes left behind by anchor posts for whitewash? Perhaps... Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Holes left behind by anchor posts for whitewash? Perhaps… Photo by Shelagh Fritz


One of the coolest objects found was an arrowhead several years ago, and another arrowhead showed up a few months ago. Leo explained that the arrowheads can be dated by using the fact that glass absorbs water at a specific rate for locations.


Other features of the island, are fun to speculate over – the bluestone found on the island is only found in a few locations around the Bay Area, Angel Island and Corte Madera. Not only did significant labour went into gathering the bluestone and hauling it to Alcatraz, but seeing it used for building reflects a known time period and a recycling of building material as well. Leo’s passion was evident as he said ‘some we will never learn but there is meaning in it all’.


Our take away lesson from Leo’s talk was to “overly thoughtful and nerdy about everything you find”.

Bluestone and bricks used to create a wall below the main roadway in Officers' Row. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Bluestone and bricks used to create a wall below the main roadway in Officers’ Row. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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Concrete Preservation on Alcatraz

Did you know that when the cell house on Alcatraz was completed in 1912, it was the largest steel reinforced concrete structure in the world?

The world of concrete has come a long way since then, becoming the main building material in pretty much everything from buildings to bridges, and is actually the world’s second most consumed material (water is first). Fittingly, Alcatraz continues to play a part in the latest technology for concrete with the Concrete Preservation Institute.

A National Park Service Partnership began with a school program based out of Chico State University for students in Concrete Studies to have hands-on experience. Alcatraz happens to be an island full of concrete that is weathering in the salty wind that offers endless projects to students.

Summer 2015 Class. Photo courtesy of CPI.

Summer 2015 Class. Photo courtesy of CPI.

Much like the Alcatraz Historic Gardens Project, the Concrete Preservation Institute program quickly grew and, as of 2015, is now its own separate ‘non-profit educational foundation that advances the industry and partners with the US National Park Service at Alcatraz Island to preserve landmark structures’.

Personally knowing very little about concrete, other than it is strong, I wanted to know more about how the students worked their magic of transforming deteriorating railings back into new. Catrina, a current student of the program, and Scott, one of the programs leaders were generous with their time to answer my questions.


The concrete preservation projects the team works on are decided by a Projects and Stewardship committee of staff from the National Park Service, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and the CPI team themselves. As the program continues, the student’s projects are getting more complicated and more skilled. However, the gardens offer a fairly straightforward project with the many concrete panel railings in the Rose Terrace and Officers’ Row. For each project, students learn project management and hands on training doing the work. For management, students run the project and comply with NPS protocols such as providing an existing conditions report, historical report and taking in progress photos to document the work. The hands on training involves drawing the railings to scale in blueprints, building the forms and learning how to work with the various materials with safety as a priority.

CPI students removing forms on a concrete railing. Shelagh Fritz photo

CPI students removing forms on a concrete railing. Shelagh Fritz photo

In her own words, Catrina is embracing CPI for what it is; a once in a lifetime opportunity to be a part of becoming an asset to history. “I am learning so much here. Other internship would be all paperwork and no application of skills. This is what makes CPI different. We learn from instructors who have dedicated their lives to the concrete Industry”. The students frequently receive visits from people who literally write the textbooks students use in concrete engineering majors!

Q: Can you tell me a bit about the program itself?

A: CPI is a twelve weeks program open for college students and post nine eleven veterans. There are 3 sessions per year. CPI teaches students research & technology innovation, tool knowledge and application skills, importance of industry job site safety, and using skills to apply to preservation of Alcatraz. There are people from many different educational backgrounds in this program. Some participants educational background range from construction industry management, civil engineering, biology, megatronics engineering, and architecture. Several people involved are both in schools and active duty servicemen and vets who served in Iraq. Veterans are always urged to join CPI program. I believe this program is an amazing opportunity for anyone who is involved.

Q: What makes the concrete you are using now special?

A: The concrete we are using is manufactured by BASF to add extra features to withstand the elements which typically limit the longevity of concrete. We mixed fibers in the mix for the panels of the railing because those areas are subjects to a greater weight load because of the top portion of railings. The panels are only 2″ in thickness so the panels have stainless steel threaded rods (the new rebar) embedded in them. Cracking over time is natural process in concrete because the rebar corrodes. The synthetic fibers never break down and so in theory, the concrete should last indefinitely.

New railings in the rose terrace. Photos by Shelagh Fritz

New railings in the rose terrace. Photos by Shelagh Fritz

Catrina was initially informed about this opportunity from her program director at New Jersey Institute of Technology. The current session finished on August 21 program and she will have a greater advantage for applying for fellowships and scholarships. In the fall, Catrina will continue her schooling at New Jersey Institute of Technology for her engineering degree in concrete industry management and construction management. Her future is bright with limitless possibilities.

With the abundance of concrete in the world, skilled people will be very much in demand to care for aging structures. Students will either go directly into the industry after their internship or will return to school to study chemistry, biology or architecture.



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The Official Flower of San Francisco

Did you know the Dahlia is the official flower of San Francisco?

Dahlia 'Kaiser Wilhelm'. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Dahlia ‘Kaiser Wilhelm’. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

On October 4, 1926, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors took a vote and animously decided that the Dahlia best represented their city.


From the San Francisco Dahlia Society website, the proclamation reads:


“WHEREAS, the Dahlia has reached its highest perfection in and about San Francisco, and because Dahlias originated in San Francisco are grown in gardens all over the world; and


WHEREAS, the Dahlia partakes essentially of the character of our beloved city, in birth, breeding and habit, for it was originally Mexican, carried thence to Spain, to France and England in turn, being changed in the process from a simple daisy-like wild flower to a cosmopolitan beauty. It has come back to San Francisco like the sophisticated world traveler it is, to find its favorite home here, where it thrives in the cool summers and the moist air of our fog-swept, sandy gardens by the sea;


WHEREAS, it is a robust flower, generous and able to thrive in any reasonable soil, so long as it is not too dry, and has the primitive strength of our pioneer ancestors, together with the gayety and color that no other city nor flower can hope to equal, going, like our artists and poets, to carry color and beauty into far climes, but blooming best in our own gardens out of doors in our cool even climates;


WHEREAS, in its versatility, its beauty, its infinite variety of color and form, it is the very symbol of San Francisco life and of the spirit of her people; therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the Dahlia be and it is here designated the official flower of San Francisco.”


The Medical Officer and his wife, Mrs. Casey, with their dahlias outside of their Officers' Row home. Photo courtesy of J. Babyak, 1961ca

The Medical Officer and his wife, Mrs. Casey, with their dahlias outside of their Officers’ Row home. Photo courtesy of J. Babyak, 1961ca

The reasons the Dahlia was chosen in 1926 still hold true today – San Francisco is still a world-class city – still innovating, has spirit and still has foggy, cool summers.


Since the 1920’s, dahlias have had a dedicated plot near the Conservatory of Flowers and are an attraction for locals and visitors throughout the summer. With dahlias being so popular, perhaps this is why the residents of Alcatraz began to grow them. Our small collection consists of heirlooms from the 1880’s through the 1940s. The flowers are just beginning to bloom – time to take in this history within history on a tiny island.

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From One ‘A’ List Island to Another

This week Alcatraz staff and volunteers were invited to visit their neighbour, Angel Island for a tour. While we are very familiar with Alcatraz’s history, it was really fascinating to see the same history but from the perspective of Angel Island.

Alcatraz and San Francisco from Angel Island. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Alcatraz and San Francisco from Angel Island. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Angel Island is a State Park that is only 1 mile away from Alcatraz and is the largest island in the San Francisco Bay. Unlike Alcatraz, coastal natives, the Miwok, did live on Angel Island with its source of fresh water and a population of deer established when the island was still connected to the mainland.

Alcatraz is described as a ‘layered cake of history’ and our tour of Angel Island took us through many layers. Like Alcatraz, the military had a very strong presence to protect the Bay with the start of the Civil War. In 1863, artillery guns and batteries were constructed, houses were built and camps were set up. In the coming years, Angel Island was used as a quarantine station for immigrants and  troops returning from the Spanish-American war in 1899, a discharge station for troops coming and going to the Pacific, an immigration station from 1910 to 1940 and a prisoner of war facility for the second World War.

The island is best known for being the Ellis Island of the West – an immigration station. The earthquake of 1906 destroyed all of San Francisco’s City Hall’s records and this became an opportunity for established immigrants to invite family members to America. Officials became wise to the sudden influx of immigrants and soon changed the rules – now extensive interviews were required and family member’s answers must match each other in closed interviews. Angel Island became a holding facility while the interviews were being carried out. Stays could last anywhere from a couple of weeks to 20 months. Today, the immigration station is open for visitors and it really is moving. Alcatraz was a place where inmates were imprisoned for behaving badly, whereas Angel Island’s detainees were imprisoned for wanting a better life. Poems were inscribed in the wooden walls, many are in Asian languages, to release the anger and frustration felt. Our ranger described how the officials filled in the carvings with

Incriptions carved into the wooden walls. The green color was referred to in many poems. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Incriptions carved into the wooden walls. The green color was referred to in many poems. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

wood putty and painted over the repair to erase the ‘graffiti’, only to have more poems take their place. In their efforts to erase the poems, the wood putty actually preserved the writings! Many of the poems have been translated and a few of them speak of being surrounded by green fields. It turns out that the original paint had been a jade green. In Chinese culture, jade brings luck and good fortune, so it must have been especially cruel to be held in a green holding room uncertain of your future.

I was especially interested in the plant life on the island. Alcatraz’s topsoil actually had been imported from Angel Island and the ranger joked that we have their soil. Initially, the military chopped down all the trees on Angel Island to use for construction and then

Gardens around the Bake House. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Gardens around the Bake House. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

realized that perhaps a few trees would look much better. Eucalyptus groves were planted, much like on Alcatraz and in the Presidio in San Francisco. As well, around Officers’ homes gardens were planted. Today, the gardens are suffering from neglect with lack of funding for garden staff to revitalize them. With deer constantly grazing, it will be a challenge to restore them (I’ll take my 2000 seagulls any day).

The gardens around the Bake House were very interesting. The pathways were set with brick edges with the stamp of the brick maker – I noted some C.H. (from city hall) and Carneige that we have on Alcatraz too. There were also a few plants in common with Alcatraz  – chasmanthe, calla lilies, a few rambling roses, Echium, Agave and daffodils in bloom. One of the more interesting plantings was a row of Monterrey cypress trees planted by the hospital. The row had actually been maintained as a high hedge!

The military planted Agave americana, just like on Alcatraz. The Golden Gate Bridge can be seen in the fog. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The military planted Agave americana, just like on Alcatraz. The Golden Gate Bridge can be seen in the fog. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

I hope Angel Island will someday have the good fortune that Alcatraz has had with the gardens being restored and the garden story being told. I really do think the gardens are the icing on the layered cake of history.


Angel Island can be visited year round and even combined with a trip to Alcatraz on the ‘Island Hop tour’ with Alcatraz Cruises. Learn more about Angel Island here.

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Way back in April…

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

'Carolina Primrose' Photo by Shelagh Fritz

‘Carolina Primrose’ Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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'. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

‘Dauntless’. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

‘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

'Bibi'_Photo courtesy of Old House Gardens

‘Bibi’_Photo courtesy of Old House Gardens

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.







'Friendship'. Photo courtesy of Old House Gardens

‘Friendship’. Photo courtesy of Old House Gardens

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

'Melodie'. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

‘Melodie’. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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.










Gladiolus 'Boone'_August 2013_SLF photo 012 (6 resize)

'Contentment'. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

‘Contentment’. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

‘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

'Boone'. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

‘Boone’. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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

Abyssinian gladiolus. Photo courtesy of Old House Gardens

Abyssinian gladiolus. Photo courtesy of Old House Gardens

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' Photo by Shelagh Fritz

‘Lilac & Chartreuse’ Photo by Shelagh Fritz

‘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.

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Tough Gardening, Part 2

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.

Officers' Row homes in 1893. Photo courtesy of NARA archives

Officers’ Row homes in 1893. Photo courtesy of NARA archives

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!

The historic trough planter being repaired in 2005.

The historic trough planter being repaired in 2005.

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.

The trough planter in the 1940s. Photo courtesy of Joseph Simpson

The trough planter in the 1940s. Photo courtesy of Joseph Simpson

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Words from the Rock – a collection of poems

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

of dawn

the flowers

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.

-Mary Schumacher


Alcatraz II


Where men denied the privileges

    of men

Once more the priviledges of nature

Centranthus ruber with the ever watchful guardtower. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Centranthus ruber with the ever watchful guardtower. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

    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

Chasmanthe softening the harshness of the recreation yard. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Chasmanthe softening the harshness of the recreation yard. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

-Larry Neal, Oklahoma City, OK; September 26, 1992


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Tough Gardening

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.


Orange Chasmanthe and blue Echium blooming in spring. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Orange Chasmanthe and blue Echium blooming in spring. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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.


The terraced gardens in July when many of the survivor plants go dormant. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The terraced gardens in July when many of the survivor plants go dormant. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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

The terraces with Gladiolus tended by the Inmates in the 1940s. Photo courtesy of Joseph Simpson.

The terraces with Gladiolus tended by the Inmates in the 1940s. Photo courtesy of Joseph Simpson.

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.





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