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Category Archives: History
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.
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.
Most gardeners have a winter pastime of pouring over plant order catalogues, examining each plant and adding it to a wish list. Here in San Francisco, while we do not quite receive the same snowstorms as elsewhere, we do have long nights and look forward to spring.
I placed an order for heirloom Gladiolus from Old House Bulbs this past fall and they arrived this week! With their bright pink labels, they looked like bags of candy. I ordered a selection of bulbs that would have been available to gardeners before 1963. The federal prison closed in 1963, and so when choosing heirloom plants, we try to be as authentic as possible.
Gladiolus flowers were identified in a few historic
photographs from the 1940s and 1950s, in one photo an inmate is actually holding a whole armful of apricot sprays of flowers. Often, these bouquets were taken to the chapel to decorate the altar, or placed on the dock for resident families to come and take for their own homes.
Another photograph shows the blooms standing at the back of a bed in the Prisoner Gardens on the west side of the island. Maybe the inmates were able to order from a catalogue too? Or maybe a guard brought them back to the island to be planted. Not knowing how plants arrived on the island is part of the mystery of gardening on the Rock. At any rate, a great deal of effort was put into obtaining plants to provide beauty.
The gladiolus that I ordered have fun names – Friendship, Carolina Primrose, Dauntless, Bibi, Melodie, Contentment (probably not the best name for being on Alcatraz), Abyssinian (which appears in the Gardens of Alcatraz book), and Boone. These glads will be planted this coming week in the Rose Terrace in the raised bed in front of the greenhouse, where the photo of the inmate holding the cut gladiolus was taken.
Last year, our gladiolus had significant rust, so this year we will experiment with treating them with a fungicide and lifting them at the end of the growing season to store them for the winter.
Upon arriving to Alcatraz, many visitors are surprised at how, well, BEAUTIFUL, the island is. The gardens are a stark contrast to what they were expecting to find – a barren island in the middle of San Francisco Bay that has the world’s most famous prison. Test your knowledge about the gardens with these questions, I bet you learn something new.
1. In 2005, a plant inventory was done of the surviving vegetation on Alcatraz. How many species of plants were found?
A. Less than 50
B. Between 51 and 100
C. Between 101 and 200
D. Over 200
2. True or False – the island has no source of freshwater other than fog drip and rainfall.
3. True or False – all of the island’s soil was imported.
4. True or False – the gardens have plants from every continent except Antarctica.
5. True or False – inmate gardener, Elliot Michener,
was so attached to the gardens he created during his 9 year stay, that upon his transfer to Leavenworth Prison in Kansas, he requested to come back to Alcatraz to finish his sentence.
6. True or False – today, the garden volunteers have a worm farm in the rose terrace greenhouse.
7. The nasturtiums seen growing on the island today were introduced:
A. 1924 by the California Wildflower and Spring Blossom Society
B. A seagull dropped the seeds
C. 2003 when The Garden Conservancy began clearing overgrowth
8. Alcatraz Island is 22.5 acres in size. The gardens make up:
A. 500 ft2
B. 1 acre
C. 2 acres
D. 4.5 acres
9. True or False – During the island’s days as a military prison, there was a mule stable on the west lawn.
10. True or False – Penitentiary guards would sometimes fish from the Alcatraz dock. They would use the fish heads to fertilize the island’s roses.
11. True or False – Penitentiary inmates tended flower gardens and would leave buckets of flowers on the dock for guards’ families.
12. The garden restoration began in 2003 and relied heavily on volunteer gardens. As of January 2013, garden volunteers have logged:
A. 1000 hours
B. 10 000 hours
C. 30 000 hours
D. 40 000 hours
13. True or False – once you are on the island, the garden tour is free.
14. The military and penitentiary encouraged inmates to garden, mainly to give the inmates something to do. A number of greenhouses were constructed on the island to help grow plants. Today, there are 2
greenhouses on the island, but how many greenhouses once stood on the island?
15. Today, Alcatraz is a protected sanctuary for many kinds of water birds who return to the island every spring to nest and raise their families. A few of these birds began coming to the island during the 40 years when the gardens became overgrown. Which birds come to the island because the overgrowth provides ideal nesting sites?
A. Seagulls and Brandt’s cormorants
C. Snowy egrets and black crowned night herons
D. Pigeon guillemots and penguins
16. True or False – there are still more gardens to restore on the island.
17. True or False – the military had vocational training for inmates to become gardeners.
18. The slope in front of the cell house was planted in 1924 to give a friendly look to San Francisco. The slope was restored in 2007 and the Persian carpet iceplant is blooming bright pink once again. The slope can be seen as far away as:
A. As you approach on the ferry
B. Fisherman’s Wharf
C. Crissy Field
D. The Golden Gate Bridge
19. What is the secret ingredient in our award winning compost?
A. Bird guano
C. Anchor Steam hops
20. True or False – there is always something blooming in the gardens, regardless of the time of year.
1. d; 2. True; 3. True; 4. True; 5. True; 6. True; 7. a; 8. d; 9. True; 10. True; 11. True; 12. d; 13. True; 14. c; 15. c; 16. True; 17. True; 18. d; 19. c; 20. c
How did you do?
15-20 correct answers – You should become a docent!
10-14 – Very good!
6-9 – Pretty good.
0-5 – Come join us on a tour!
The Federal Prison on Alcatraz was meant for the ‘worst of the worst’. Inmates only got sent to Alcatraz because they were behaving badly at another prison; in a way, they had to earn their way to Alcatraz.
But what if you are a plant? And you are misbehaving? And you are already on Alcatraz?
This seems to be the case with our Agaves.
While the island was operating as a military fortress to protect the Bay, and later as a military prison, Agave americana were brought to the island in the early 1920s in attempts to landscape the island. The plant proved to be ideal for growing in the dry, rocky soil with little water or care. But this plant has a defense mechanism of its own. Perhaps it is not commonly known, but Agaves can cause skin irritations when the sap comes into contact with people’s skin.
While not everyone is afflicted, a few of my volunteers have had reactions to being poked by the thorns or have developed a skin reaction with itching and blistering because of the sap. The sap contains calcium oxalate crystals, acrid oils, saponins, and other compounds, but it seems the calcium oxalate is responsible for the irritation.
A quick search on Wikipedia found that – “The juice from many species of agave can cause acute contact dermatitis. It will produce reddening and blistering lasting one to two weeks. Episodes of itching may recur up to a year thereafter, even though there is no longer a visible rash. Irritation is, in part, caused by calcium oxalate raphides. Dried parts of the plants can be handled with bare hands with little or no effect. If the skin is pierced deeply enough by the needle-like ends of the leaf from a vigorously growing plant, this can also cause blood vessels in the surrounding area to erupt and an area some 6–7 cm across appear to be bruised. This may last up to two to three weeks.”
There are three types of Agaves on the
island – Agave americana, which has established itself on hillsides and needs minimal care, while in the gardens, we have introduced Agave attenuata and Agave parryi. The Agave attenuata is my favorite! Not surprisingly, it has smooth leaves and no thorns. The Agave parryi, has a different story. This low growing blue leaved succulent has black spines along the margins of the leaves and the tip – very nice to look at, but not nice to weed around.
Like a bad sibling, this plant has been cursed at more often than any other plant on the island, and is one step away from the compost pile after pricking the volunteer that stewards the succulent slope. Instead of being sent to ‘D’ Block aka, the compost pile, Agave parryi will be isolated on a slope outside of the rec yard, far away from any well-meaning hands. With a view of the Golden Gate and city, Agave parryi, can think long and hard about what it has done! Or perhaps, it will think ‘alone at last, now I can enjoy the view’.
Even though Alcatraz is a rock, greywackle sandstone to be exact, erosion is taking its toll.
Originally, the island had two summits that were blasted down by the military when the island was used as a fortress and later a military prison. Steep cliffs were created and the roadways that we walk today were carved into the hillsides. The Commander of the Army, and later, the Warden of the Federal Prison, picked the best vantage point to build his home on Alcatraz, of course, he picked the top of the island overlooking the Parade Ground.
The cliff that the Warden’s House is perched upon has been slowly crumbling over the past few decades. This month, work was started to stabilize the cliff with placing shotcrete, to preserve the cliff and the historic home. Shotcrete is a mortar that is more dense, homogenous, stronger and waterproof compared to concrete. Shotcrete is sprayed onto the cliff, usually over a mesh, through a hose at high speed, so it can even be applied to vertical surfaces – making it a great choice to stabilize cliffs.
Workers first dangled over the cliff to remove vegetation and loose rock. A huge pile of Agave americana soon accumulated. These plants are truly amazing to cling to rock.
This week, the crew color coded the locations for placement of dowels that would be used to secure the mesh and bond the shotcrete (white) to the cliff face, weep holes to provide drainage (blue) and the locations of deeper rock bolts (orange).
The work to stabilize the cliff will continue to the end of January. Visitors can watch the work progress and it is pretty interesting to see preservation of this historic landmark in progress.
I’ll let you in on a little secret – now is the best time to visit Alcatraz. The Thanksgiving crowds have gone home and the holiday season hasn’t started yet. The ferries are not packed, which means you can buy a ticket the day of. And even better, the island is lush and green, the daffodils are blooming and the hummingbirds are zipping around.
The island feels almost tranquil, especially the gardens. Normally quiet, even during the summer, the Prisoner Gardens on the west side of the island typically only sees visitors when the weather is particularly beautiful. In the winter, it is possible to work for hours in the gardens without saying hello to anyone. So, I had a bit of a surprise while working yesterday on the west side – the gardens actually felt busy. I wondered what was going on and then I realized – people were on the wrong side of the gate – in the CLOSED area!
Following the stream of people, I entered the Laundry Building and spoke to the National Park Service Intern, Nora. It seems like the Park decided to open the building doors and let visitors experience this normally ‘off limits’ shortcut.
This additional visitor access is pretty special – not only do visitors get to see more of the island, but now they can walk around the island through the Laundry Building instead of backtracking. The visitors are also walking in the steps of the inmates – walking through the gardens and seeing the city in the distance while on their way to work in the Laundry Building.
The cliché of being so close yet so far, probably never had a better example.
Even though you will not need to book ahead to visit during the winter months, don’t leave it until the last minute. This area will close for February 1 as Brandt’s Cormorants return to nest in a nearby area.
This week the Garden Conservancy celebrated ten years of our West Coast Council programs. We also gathered to honor Antonia Adezio, our President, who is stepping down in December.
We reflected on our goal of having a bigger impact on West Coast gardeners. Looking around the room Wednesday evening at the close-knit community of gardeners, the Garden Conservancy has certainly excelled at this. In a way, it reminded me of what Freddie Riechel, the first secretary to the Warden challenged himself with when he took on caring for the gardens on Alcatraz back in 1933. Riechel reached out to expert horticulturists to keep the tradition of gardening on the Rock going. The Garden Conservancy has done the same, seeking advice from the West Coast Council and professionals to create educational programs to connect experts to local gardeners and to further develop preservation project gardens.
Antonia joined the newly founded Garden Conservancy in 1989 at the request of Frank Cabot. With the organization firmly established on the East Coast, the board of directors determined that in 202, the organization was ready to have a regional office based in San Francisco. Shortly after, the Garden Conservancy was enticed by the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy to form a partnership to restore the Gardens of Alcatraz. The neglected historic gardens quickly became a passion for Antonia. As part of the evening’s ceremonies, I had the honor to present a brief history of our work on the island and to highlight our accomplishments with bringing the gardens back to life.
Antonia’s leadership throughout her time with the Conservancy has shaped the success , especially with Alcatraz, and her vision will be continued as we carry on. I like to think that every garden holds onto some characteristic of their caretakers, even as the caretakers move on. I see this especially in the old gardens on Alcatraz – the surviving apple trees that still bear fruit, the inmate built terraces, and perhaps the greatest mark left – the decision by the Garden Conservancy get involved to restore the gardens for the future enjoyment for all.