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Category Archives: Plants
Alcatraz Island was a place for life to struggle, where only the most determined could survive. The plant life on the island is no exception. Heirloom plants introduced to the island decades ago either thrived with neglect when the prison closed in 1963 or soon perished under the overgrowth.
Of the 200 species and varieties of ornamental plants that were documented in the early years of the Alcatraz Historic Gardens Project, one plant that has special significance is blooming right now – the Rose ‘Bardou Job’.
In 1989, a group of rosarians from the Heritage Rose Group came to Alcatraz to take cuttings of roses, and propagate them with the aim of identifying them and saving heirloom roses. The deep red climbing hybrid tea rose soon came to be known as the ‘Alcatraz Rose’. This rose, while having its roots on Alcatraz, has Welsh heritage. More importantly, this rose could no longer be found in Wales, but yet one rose bush was thriving on Alcatraz behind the Warden’s House. In 2000, six plants were returned to the Museum of Welsh Life at St. Fagan’s near Cardiff for the Wales Tourist Board’s Homecoming 2000 campaign.
Cuttings of ‘Bardou Job’ were grown up and two plants returned to Alcatraz to be planted on the Rose Terrace, located below the water tower in 2007. Visitors are able to see this unique rose on the free docent led garden tour, every Friday and Sunday morning. Visitors will also be able to see other heirloom roses, ones that survived on the island and others that were introduced with the restoration project. Roses were chosen by the time period when they could have been grown on the island. In other words, all the roses on the island would have been introduced to the plant trade before 1963. For Bay Area gardeners, the roses on Alcatraz are a selection of plants that have minimal powdery mildew, black spot, cope with marine conditions and are reliable bloomers.
For rose enthusiasts, spring into summer is the ideal time to plan a visit.
Volunteers took advantage of the sunny weather this morning to weed wild radish, Raphanus raphanistrum, on the southern facing slope in front of the cell house. This annual weed, a member of the mustard family – Brassicaceae – has naturalized in North America from its native Eurasia.
This overgrown section of the slope was stabilized in 2007 with waddles and jute netting but has since become overgrown with radish, Lavatera and oxalis. This is the first year that we are attempting to control the radish. Our intent is to reduce the number the weed seeds so that in future years, this slope will be planted with the Persian carpet, Drosanthemum floribundum that was historically planted on this slope during the 1920s.
The radish is just beginning to establish itself for the summer by sending its long taproot deep into the soil to find moisture. Volunteers took on the challenge of pulling the entire root, otherwise the plant will continue to grow. Either it was the hard work or the scent of fresh radish but like other radishes, these roots are edible and soon the volunteers were nibbling at the roots. The flowers are also edible and are easily identifiable with four petals ranging in color of pale yellow, apricot, pink and white. When considering consuming any plant from the wild, it is vital to be confident that you have positively identified the plant.
One of the most rewarding aspects of working in the Gardens of Alcatraz is to see the changes over the years. While continuously caring for a garden, it is easy to not notice the subtle differences as it matures. Sometimes it takes comparing photographs taken over a span of time to be able to stand back and think ‘Wow’!
Working on historic preservation of landscapes requires diligent photographic documentation of existing conditions, work in progress, and the final result. Ideally, photos should be taken from the same vantage point. An added bonus is to have historic photos as well.
This year, the west side of the island along the roadway is doing particularly well with many succulents coming into bloom right now. Many of these succulents were propagated from elsewhere on the island and to see them flourish is very satisfying. Plants include Aeonium arboretum, Aloe arborescens, Carpobrotus edulis, Mesembryanthemum crystallinum, and Lampranthus aurantiacus. In March 2009, rocky bare soil and a thicket of Rosa wichuraiana spilled onto the roadway in this same area. A sprinkling of California poppy seeds, Eschscholzia californica, added a bit of color to the slope.
In September 2009, a volunteer group cleared the ramble of roses and the hillside was revealed. Over the next few months, succulents obtained from the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, which happens to be the very first garden preserved by the Garden Conservancy, were added to the sunny slope to complement the other succulents up the road. The Ruth Bancroft Garden succulents, available to gardeners during the 1930s to 1960s, were choice plants for our Alcatraz gardens.
The difference in the before and after photos of this garden area is vivid. Like many things in life, gardens keep getting better with age.
There are many sea birds that call Alcatraz home. Western Gulls make up the majority of the birds with around 2000 nesting on the parade ground at the south end of the island. The parade ground will be closing to allow these birds to raise their young on February 1st to mid September.
During the penitentiary days, families of the guards also called the parade ground home. Many of the families lived in apartment buildings and tended gardens. The apartments were torn down by the government after the island was occupied by the Native Americans from 1969 to 1971 and the rubble was left.
From the remaining ruins, new life does spring. Like elsewhere on the island, the neglected gardens were overrun with aggressive ivy, honeysuckle and blackberries. The tough conditions on the parade ground allow for only the most determined plants to survive.
Taking a walk around the rubble piles, it is hard not to be impressed with how the Aeoniums have found niches for themselves. Spilling over concrete walls, these plants are thriving without soil, no summer water and very windy conditions.
The photo opportunities alone warrant a visit to the island before this intriguing part of the island closes until September.
With the chilly and rainy weather of winter, a cozy place to work is inside the island’s cedar greenhouse located in the Rose Terrace Garden below the water tower. The temperature of the greenhouse averages 50 F during the day, even though it is in shade for most of the day.
We are busy sowing seeds for winter annuals and bulb cover for the spring. Volunteers have helped sow flats of Calundula, Lobularia, and Shirley poppies (Papaver rhoeas). We have also started summer annuals of zinnias and hollyhocks.
A fun experiment was collecting and sowing seed from the survivor artichoke. Sarah Dominsky, an intern with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, harvested the thistle seed head from the garden affectionately called the Toolshed Terraces in November.
Out of more than 50 seeds sown, only one actually germinated! This one little plant is being fussed over and was potted up into a larger sized pot last week. To help preserve the genetic material of island survivor plants, we are able to collect seeds and take cuttings of plant material. With the completion and dedication of the greenhouse to Carola Ashford this past April, we have been able to grow our own annuals, propagate perennials and continue the tradition of propagation on the island.
The much anticipated winter rains that bring a lush green to the island mark another “season” in the gardens – the weeding season. The most prolific weed on the island is Oxalis pes-caprae, commonly known as sourgrass or Bermuda buttercup. It is native to South Africa and highly invasive in California, especially along the coast.
How oxalis came to be on Alcatraz is not known. However, it is thought that the bright yellow winter flowers of oxalis were ideal to plant with the summer blooming pink Persian carpet, Drosanthemum floribundum.
While this planning of sequential garden bloom is clever, past ornamental plant introductions often turn out to be problematic choices.
To maintain the Persian carpet and to keep it from being choked out, volunteer gardeners will be spending countless hours on the south facing cell house slope from now until April.
Weeding oxalis is no easy feat but not without rewards. Oxalis grows from a corm from a depth of one inch to over nine. Digging out the corm is the key to removing the weed once and for all, and the satisfaction of pulling out the entire corm is very rewarding. I often find myself holding up the offending corm and showing it off proudly to the volunteers, as usually it’s only other weeders who can fully appreciate the accomplishment. In addition to the sheer pleasure of weeding for hours, enjoying views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge, chatting with visitors who are also admiring the view, and occasionally eavesdropping on conversations cannot be beat.
Over 200 species of plants managed to survive on the island without any care after the federal prison closed in 1963. Among these hardy plants are several bulbs that are adapted for the dry summers and wet winters of a Mediterranean climate.
Freddie Reichel, the first secretary to Warden Johnson from 1934 to 1941, was one of the first federal penitentiary employees to voluntarily care for the gardens. One of his favorite plants was the daffodil. Through his effort, inmate gardeners soon took over caring for the landscape and even began hybridizing daffodils. Reichel visited the island years later and an inmate “showed Reichel where he had hidden his treasured hybridized narcissus, for it seemed that other residents thought they were too pretty to stay in the gardens.” (Gardens of Alcatraz book by John Hart, Michael Boland, Russell A. Beatty, Roy Eisenhardt, 1996)
While picking the flowers is not permitted in the National Park, visitors can enjoy the sight and smell of these garden treasures. Paperwhites are already in bloom. For the next two weeks, the fragrance of Narcissus ‘Galilee’ will greet visitors as they make their way up to the cell house. Flower buds of Narcissus ‘Grand Soleil d’Or’ are ready to burst open.
This heirloom bulb produces up to fifteen small flowers on each flower stem and a walk through Officers’ Row garden is not to be missed when these tiny flowers are in full bloom.
To complement the existing bulbs, additional daffodils were planted in the fall of 2006. With each passing year, they produce a better display. Officers’ Row is planted with ten different cultivars of daffodils that bloom from now until mid-March.
While other parts of the country are cold and snowy, a visit to Alcatraz to experience the sight and smell of these bulbs will lift winter weary spirits.
Location, location, location. Alcatraz Island, situated in the middle of the entrance to the San Francisco Bay, has always been prime real estate. In 1846, the military recognized a fortress strategically placed on the island would protect the bay against the threats of the impending Civil War.
On the naturally bare island with only a few sparse grasses, soil was needed to hold the cannons in place ringing the steep cliffs. In 1869, soil was imported from nearby Angel Island and with the soil came seeds of native plants: Baccharis pilularis (coyote bush), Eschscholzia californica (California poppy), Rhamnus californica (coffeeberry), and spores from several types of ferns.
Recent winter rains have caused the island to erupt into a lush green oasis after the dry summer months. Ferns and moss drape over walls, staircases and down hillsides.
There are four species of ferns that grow well on the island: Polypodium scouleri (leathery polypody), Polypodium californicum (California polypody), Polystichum munitum (western sword fern), and Pentagramma triangularis (goldback fern).
All of these ferns thrive in moist sea air. The leathery polypody and the western sword fern are evergreen, while the California polypody and goldback fern are only appreciated during the rainy winter months.