Tag Archives: Alcataz Island

The Iris: A Centuries Old Flower with an Intriguing History

One of the most beautiful groups of flowers we have on Alcatraz is the iris. They have been a common staple in gardens for centuries. It is worth taking a moment to look at the long history of these flowers and when they became common garden staples in America.

Iris found in Foundation 9 of Officer’s Row. Smells like Grandma’s Perfume according to some visitors. Photo by Tyrha Delger

 

Irises first grew to prominence as a garden flower in 1469 BCE. The Egyptian pharaoh King Thutmose III conquered Syria, where irises grew. An avid gardener, he brought them back to Egypt to be cultivated. This was the first-time irises had been documented as a gardening flower. From there, irises rose to prominence for their religious significance. They were carved into sculptures at temples and doctors used the rhizomes for medicine and perfume offerings.

As irises began to spread in the popularity, due to their showy flowers and lovely scents, the Greeks were the first to name them “iris”. Iris means rainbow and is the Greek messenger of the gods. Indeed, irises come in an array of colors, from deep purples to brilliant oranges. They continued to spread around Europe, becoming a staple in gardens from Spain to parts of Asia. Indians began to use their rhizomes for religious offerings. In Florence, Italy, the scent became a popular perfume. The iris inspired the design for the Fleur-de-lis. It is a common motif in France, past French Colonies, and with the Catholic Church, usually relating the Virgin Mary.

 

Iris found in the Rose Garden. Brilliantly orange, it can easily draw the eye. Photo by Tyrha Delger

The first documented iris in America was in 1600s Virginia. From there, irises would continue to hybridize, speciate, and transform into unique American varieties. It wasn’t until Michael Foster (1836-1907) studied and planted these beautiful flowers, that irises were made popular. One of his students, William R. Dykes (1877-1925) took an interest in irises and published a book called “The Genus Iris”. It was this study of irises that brought the flower to the popular conscious. In the early 1900s, there was a rise of irises in American gardens. It became so popular, Tennessee adopted it as the state flower. The most popular iris today is the German or Bearded Iris, an iris we have on Alcatraz. However, most irises have hybridized so much that there are 300 species, and these species are difficult to separate into a clean taxonomy.

 

The hybridization provides another unique focal point for Alcatraz’s irises. If you smell a modern iris, it doesn’t smell like much. On Alcatraz, the irises have a stronger scent. Different Alcatraz irises smell like root beer, vanilla, and grandma’s perfume (according to

A row of root beer scented Bearded Irises in Officer’s Row. Photo by Tyrha Delger

some visitors). We have pastel purple, deep purple, white, orange and yellow Irises scattered about the Rose Garden and Officers’ Row. We use heirloom plants, which means our irises still have the genetic markers to make scent. Our use of heirloom plants provides an extra touch of historical intrigue to visitors who know their flowers.

 

As a flower, irises inspire the creative and bring delight to the floral enthusiast. They provide intriguing patterns and interesting shapes. They are unique and vibrant against the backdrop of stone and concrete. They are a flower with a long history, and it’s not hard to see why they’ve been a garden staple for thousands of years.

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From Volunteer to Intern

Written by Josefina Pacheco

Before volunteering at Alcatraz, I worked at a summer camp in Maine that emphasized teaching ecology and sustainability to elementary and middle school aged students. After ten weeks of running around in the sun and eating lobster every Thursday I found myself asking the question that many college students find themselves asking after graduation, “So, now what?”. I began searching for jobs in the Bay Area and soon discovered that I needed more experience. A friend of mine suggested to look for an internship using volunteer.org; this is where I found the post about volunteering on Alcatraz. I thought to myself I could help with gardening (one of my favorite activities), volunteer (this means experience), and look for jobs at the same time. It seemed like a win-win situation.

One of the first sights of the Golden Gate Bridge after a rainy day while volunteering on Alcatraz. Photo by Josefina Pacheco.

 

I contacted Shelagh about volunteering in September 2016. In early October, I was given the unique opportunity to apply for the intern position at Alcatraz. After a cover letter, resume, and interview I became Alcatraz’s newest intern. As an intern I now get to go on the ferry five days of the week (yay!). Twice a week I work with the volunteers which usually starts off with answering the question “So, what are we doing today?”. I then quickly take attendance and work alongside the volunteers for the day’s project for the remainder of the morning. On the other days of the week, I work one-on-one with Shelagh. The day’s schedule varies day by day but some of the more notable ‘behind the scenes’ projects include: learning to prune roses, learning to transfer seedlings to planting pots, propagating succulents, assist with leading volunteer groups, and taking pictures of the watercolor paintings from the Alcatraz Florilegium next to the actual flowers from Alcatraz. Additionally as an intern, I’m learning in greater depth about gardening and plant maintenance in general, along with gardening specifically on Alcatraz and its history.

A watercolor painting of a chasmanthe from the Alcatraz Florilegium next to a chasmanthe near the West Side Lawn. (The notable Gardens of Alcatraz burgundy sweatshirt can be seen attempting to blend in with the background). Photo by Shelagh Fritz.

 

 

To help learn the names of the plants of Alcatraz I take pictures of them and then add their names to the image. For example here is an image of muscari which is often called grape hyacinth in Officers’ Row. Photo taken and edited by Josefina Pacheco.

 

What many people don’t know is that as an intern one gets a stipend and housing at (one of the most breathtaking places) the Marin Headlands. At the Headlands, other interns from other parts of the Park live there as well. To help meet even more interns, specifically those in the Presidio, there are monthly intern swaps. At a swap, interns get to go to another park site and volunteer there for a day (so far I’ve only participated in the Milagra Ridge intern swap where I planted native grasses). To further enhance your knowledge there are Park Academy Classes held a couple times a month. The topics range from botany to fire management to leadership training. Being able to meet new people, volunteer at different parks, and learn more about whatever topic you want to learn more about makes this an incredible experience.

A stunning sunrise at the Marin Headlands on February 1. Photo by Josefina Pacheco.

At first I was a little nervous about the transition from volunteer to intern but everyone (staff and volunteers) have been really helpful and supportive, so thank you and I’m looking forward to seeing the gardens through the seasons!

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Welcome to the Gardens of Alcatraz blog

The Island of Alcatraz

The Island of Alcatraz, Photo by Elizabeth Byers

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

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

Chasmanthe floribunda

Chasmanthe floribunda, Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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

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

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