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Tag Archives: Alcatraz
The second in this “Historic Gardening Trends” series, we are now moving out of the 1800s and into the 1900s. The 1900s through the 1910s had their own gardening trends; building from what was popular during the Victorian era but rejecting and changing what new gardeners did not like about the style. Alcatraz itself was going through a change. The Civil War had brought a rapid amount of development and change in the structures, trickling down to the gardens. The construction of the main concrete cell block began in 1909 and, once again, the wives of the soldiers sought a way to bring life and civilization to the Rock via gardens.
By the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, there was a trend to return to formal gardening. There was no longer a desire to have a “garden growing wild” aesthetic. The plants were often carefully pruned and nurtured to be contained. Furthermore, there was more of an effort to use architecture in gardening. With building projects being wider-spread, people sought to show off their house and its features, using the garden to direct the eye. Similarly, using concrete terraces, paths, and steps provided a bit more structure and more of an architectural feel. The Victorian tradition of using gardens as an outside room continued and would continue to be a hallmark of modern gardening practices. Gardens were places to gather with family and friends, not just a place to grow food. Water was another major feature in the early 1900s gardens. Fountains, pods, and waterfalls were popular.
The plants themselves were almost an afterthought to the garden. Gardeners used geometric lines and an enclosed feeling to make the outside feel more like the inside. Furthermore, the Victorian fascination with wild, sprawling exotics was replaced with neat, boxed hedged beds. The actual flowers and shrubs were kept off verdant laws and bowling greens. It was no use having people over to your garden if they could not walk around without stepping on flowers.
Inside these neat and tidy beds were a variety of peonies, irises, lavender, erigeron, and foxgloves. The colors were muted but more diverse than the Victorian era’s use of mainly greens, pinks, and purples. Roses were common as well. However, instead of ramblers and creepers allowed to sprawl and climb, they were contained into neat, round bushes.
The modern gardens of Alcatraz have these early 1900s touches hidden throughout. The water features are easy to spot since this is an island and the ocean serves that purpose nicely. The foxgloves can be found most commonly in the Rose Garden. While there are creepers and ramblers all over, other rose bushes, such as those in Foundation 8 of Officers’ Row, are kept rounded and contained. Lavender can be spotted peaking through in Foundation 9. The Toolshed Terraces gardens bring forth a more architectural element to these gardens, a subtle call back to the terraces commonly used during this time period.
What is perhaps most in line with the gardening style of the early 1900s is the fact that the gardens serve as a backdrop to the architecture, the prison. Instead of the garden being a separate entity, it is tied to, and often overshadowed by, the main cellhouse. The beds along the pathway are contained and wind around following the road; they are not allowed to grow wild and eclipse the cell house. As gardeners, we sometimes forget people come to Alcatraz not for the gardens, but for the prison. In the 1900s, the gardens were also there as a second thought; meant to enhance life and beauty on the island. It moves away from the “natural” and into the backdrop. These gardens have their own beauty and serve another purpose. But the combination of styles from such a long period of time is what allows the Gardens of Alcatraz to be diverse and beautiful, to represent a time and provide a look back as to what life would have been like for the families living on the island, and not just the prisoners and guards.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It seems every day there are stories about pollinators. There are news stories detailing their decline. There are new “Bee Hotels” designed to attract solitary bees. There are websites dedicated to creating a list of plants to attract pollinators. As gardeners, we know pollinators well. Almost any plant that has a showy flower is likely to attract pollinators. Yet, pollinators are not limited to bees and butterflies. They also include ants, male mosquitos, beetles, flies, wasps, birds, and even some mammals and reptiles. Each pollinator has a job within an ecosystem and each plant has a pollinator it is designed to attract.
Preparations for planting at Black Point Historic Gardens are underway. There is a unique opportunity for us to use Alcatraz Gardens and what we learned to make Black Point more successful. Volunteers cleared away the overgrowth and replanted flowering plants. This gave rise to a noticeable increase in bees, flies, butterflies, and birds.
We know now there are at least ten species of bees in the gardens of Alcatraz, some of them native. However, no study was completed to create a baseline estimate for species diversity before restoration work began. We know the number of pollinator species before the military’s use of the island in the 1800s was likely zero since Alcatraz was a rock with no native vegetation. The wives of soldiers established gardens. These beautiful blooms provide food and habitat for the pollinators. A baseline would have helped us know if our efforts were beneficial and guide us to future planting plans.
As historical gardeners, we have a duty to present Alcatraz and Black Point as they would have been. Heirloom plants are used to represent a specific time frame. Even where we plant certain plants is dictated by historic photographs. As a result, the ideal gardens of the late 1800s through the 1960s guide us; and in those time periods, native pollinator gardens were not in fashion. As we design the plantings at Black Point, we wish to include plants that will help native pollinators but still have the look and feel of a Victorian strolling garden.
Studies have shown planting native plants and increasing the diversity of blooms will help native pollinators. So, we have begun to start observing pollinator species diversity and population numbers. Does the garden, previously overrun with ivy, blackberries, and oxalis, function as a pollinator garden? Does the presence of native California flowering plants help increase the amount of diversity? Do the pollinator population levels increase as more flowering plants and space are made available?
These are questions we want to answer. We can only learn from the past and use Alcatraz as a guiding force for Black Point.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Most people are familiar with the idea of a portrait – usually it brings to mind a picture of a person that captures a close up of their face and maybe tells something about the person’s personality or life. It turns out you can also do portraits for plants! Last week, I had the opportunity to go to a talk at the Marin Art and Garden Center in Ross to learn how to build a Photo Florilegium from Saxon Holt and David Perry.
Florilegia (plural of florilegium) were started by Victorians to document a specific collection of plants, usually painted with watercolors. The illustrations would be bound in a book and later became popular as framed prints. With the Alcatraz Florilegium in its final year, I was curious to see what a photo Florilegium is and hopefully pick up some tips for taking better photos of the gardens and plants.
First to speak was Saxon Holt, a renowned plant photographer who has several e-books and bestsellers. A successful garden photographer for over 40 years, Saxon had plenty to share with us.
Saxon is perfecting a technique called ‘extraction’. Done in Photoshop, close-up shots of a plant are taken. Usually a number of exposures are taken to get a portion of the plant entirely in focus with sharp edges. The plant is brought forward out of the background. This technique has many cool details that are missing in a typical hand painted illustration.
First, a photograph captures the plant where the gardener chose to put it, with the colors in the background and showing the plant in context with its surroundings. Second, a photograph only records a moment in time. The portrait captured is never going to look exactly like that again. With the ease of recording GPS coordinates, it is relatively simple for anyone to return again and again to the same plant to capture stages of the plant’s life – creating a true portrait of the plant.
One feature of the Alcatraz Florilegium
illustrations that I’m drawn to is when artists paint the brown tips on leaves, rust and when the plants are setting seed and going dormant. This is truly how the plants are.
David Perry next spoke on tips for taking plant portraits. One point David was quick to say was that you do not need an expensive camera to take great photos. The main thing is to have the eye to know a good shot.
Think of photographing plants as you would people, keep in mind that you want to tell a story. David explained that a common problem when taking photos is that most people take pictures of nouns (snapping pictures of a tree, flower or a landscape). What are lacking are verbs, adjectives and prepositions. Brushing up on grammar school, this simply means don’t take mug shots of plants. Take photos that say something.
Tips from David made perfect sense:
-Look up / Look Down – people tend to take photos of what’s in their view. With the average height of people being between 5’3” and 6’3”, most photos are from this perspective.
-First / Last light of the day is best – the best light is already gone by the time people are putting the second cream in your coffee. Stick around after sunset for the best light. White flowers almost will glow in this fading light.
-Keep going back – show different moods of the same plant in different light, seasons, capture the telling detail of the plant.
-Be mindful of what’s in the background – avoid getting houses, and you can also create your own background with sheets of patterned paper for close-ups.
-Photo apps that David likes – camera+, handyphoto, overphoto, and mextures. All of these are a few dollars each and are fun to play with.
David also said ‘it’s not fair to let the plant do all the work’. He recalls being intimidated by ‘how pretty she was’ when referring to Rose ‘Felicite Hardy’.
Listening to these energized photographers, it was easy to see why they are so passionate about plants and photography. Gardeners are passionate to plant and to care for a garden, and now another step is to take photos of the plants you have chosen to be a part of your garden – creating a Photo Florilegium of a garden that is unique from any other garden.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
Not only do the kids go back to school, it’s the perfect time of year to propagate your favorite roses from cuttings!
Tapping into the wealth of knowledge from other volunteers on Alcatraz, we found out that a bird docent has a skilled hand at propagating heirloom roses by cuttings. Karen Vandergrift willingly offered to demonstrate her knack.
To start, after the rose has bloomed and before the rose hip has started to form, a cutting should be taken down to the fourth leaflet, and cut the stem ½” above the bud.
Next, pull off the leaves from the lower two buds and trim off any buds or blooms still remaining on the cutting.
Then, with sharp pruners, cut the top half of the leaves off. This will reduce the surface area that will draw moisture out of the plant.
After that is done, lightly scrape off the layer of stem down to expose the cambium that is on bottom 2” of the stem. Dip the cutting in root hormone.
Using a clean one-gallon pot, stick the cuttings in moist soil, we used our Alcatraz compost, but a potting soil mix would be fine. We put three cuttings in one pot, so hopefully one of them would take. Karen explained that she likes using a 1-gallon pot so the cutting has ample room to grow and does not need to be disturbed by repotting if it were to be started in a sleeve. She also explained that the 1-gallon pot will not dry out as fast as smaller pots.
Create a mini-greenhouse by placing skewers in the 1-gallon pot and putting a plastic bag over the skewers. The plastic bag and cutting the leaves stops evapo-transpiration that dries out the soil and the tissue of the cutting. Be sure that the leaves of the cuttings are not touching the sides of the bag as this would cause the leaves to rot. The pots are in our greenhouse, out of direct light.
We should have rooted cuttings in 6 weeks. We were instructed to water a little bit in one week – and mostly lift up the pots to see if they are light, then they need water.
If no growth is obvious in 3 months, then we’ll try again!
Late winter and early spring are ideal times to divide perennials on Alcatraz. As we do not (typically) receive frost, plants never go fully dormant as in northern climates, but herbaceous plants do slow their growing of new leaves. This window is perfect for dividing bearded iris. The plants have not yet put valuable stored energy into producing new leaves, and instead can expend energy into forming new feeder roots once it has been replanted. Once established, new leaves are produced. We have found that mature clumps of iris will still flower the same year that they were transplanted, but smaller pieces of an iris rhizome may take up to two years to flower.
Generally, we aim to divide our iris
every three years, just like the Ruth Bancroft Garden does with Ruth’s heirloom collection of iris. Happy iris become overgrown and the thick rhizomes start to crowd each other, growing over top of one another. Overgrown iris can lead to several problems – poor air circulation which increases rust on the leaves, the roots competing for nutrients in the soil, and the centers of the iris clump will become bare of leaves and not produce any flowers at all. It’s easy to tell when you should take on the project of dividing your own iris if you look for these signs.
The garden volunteers divided the tall scented bearded iris in the Prisoner’s gardens this week. Four separate patches of iris were divided, and we ended up with not only the beds replanted, but with five bins of extra iris!
The iris bloomed really well last year, but as we add fresh compost to enrich the soil, the rhizomes were becoming buried. Iris likes to be planted very shallow, with the backs of the rhizome sitting above the soil.
One of the volunteers showed me an interesting feature about the rhizomes that I didn’t know before. Looking at the underside where the roots grow from, holes are visible. These were where the roots had grown from. The rhizome grows from one end, and the older end becomes a storage unit for energy (much like a potato). When dividing iris, the older sections are broken away and only the piece with the roots are kept. We are curious to see if the older section will sprout roots, so we placed a few in a pot in our greenhouse to see what happens
Now we are busy trying to find new homes for the divided extras, these are my favorites and I can’t bear to compost them.
A key component to historical garden restoration is to document our work. As we have replanted a few garden beds this season, we are now following up the work with ‘after’ shots.
The little roadside bed that we fondly call the Chapel Bed was renovated this past August, and it is really coming into its own with the spring show of daffodils.
For snow bound East Coasters,
probably smelling our scented heirloom daffodils in January is a treat for the senses.
Including the daffodils, just in this tiny bed, there are five different plants blooming right now. There is the red valerian, Centranthus ruber, Hebe, and Verbena bonariensis. The mix of purple, red and yellow just say ‘spring is here’.
The plants not in bloom are building up to put on a great show for the summer. Already, the Tower of Jewels, Echium pininana, has doubled its size many times over. We dug up a seedling elsewhere on the island and planted it on the corner knowing that it will demand attention from the visitors walking by. Right now, it is quietly doing its own thing, growing a little each day and probably doesn’t even get a glance from the thousands of people passing by – but just wait – by the end of the summer it will reach 10 feet high and will be the star of the bed. The Tower of Jewels showed up in newly acquired historic photo along the main roadway, so it was appropriate to replant it.
Another silent wonder in this bed unfortunately will not get a season to shine. This, of course, is the new compost that was added. Rich in organic matter and worms, the compost is from our own award winning recipe and is the essential building block.
All too often, home gardeners are so eager to plant that the important step of soil preparation is missed. Amending a bed is the most physically challenging part, but the effort will be rewarded. Compost should be mixed in with the existing soil, so the plants get extra nutrients but also get accustomed to the native soil.
As the arm chair gardeners sit out the rest of the winter looking at seed catalogues, don’t forget about your soil and plan to give it some extra attention this spring.