Monthly Archives: August 2012

Spending the Night

Staying the night in a prison is probably one thing that most people would rather do without. But when the prison is Alcatraz, suddenly, the opportunity is much more appealing. The garden volunteers spent the night on the Rock as an appreciation for all their hard work. The group was treated to an evening BBQ on the dock, live music in the hospital, a chance to see a foggy sunset and breakfast the next morning with a view of the city. Not bad for a prison experience.


Music in the hospital. Photo by Lynne Buckner.

Volunteers and their guests arrived on afternoon boats and showed their guest around the gardens they help care for. The group was also treated to a performance in the hospital wing while dinner was being prepared by garden volunteer, Beth.


Gathering on the dock for dinner, some arriving visitors for the night program assumed the BBQ was for them as well and joined the line of hungry volunteers. The interlopers were quickly weeded out and sent on their way up the hill to Prison.


Fine dining on the Rock. Photo by Lynne Buckner.

The fog crept in and swallowed up any chance of seeing a sunset. No one seemed to mind though, as the night tours offered by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy night program were fascinating. Island visitors were escorted off the island around 9pm, leaving the island to the gardeners and a ranger.


The race was on to find the best cell to

Volunteers in D-block. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

sleep in. Most people chose the tiers of D-Block in the isolation wing, while others preferred the larger cells of the hospital. A couple brave volunteers thought the operation room was ideal.

Settling into the Operating Room for the night. Photy courtesy of Lynne Buckner.


Corny finding a cell. Photo by Lynne Buckner.

Aside from a few noisy seagulls, everyone slept pretty well. The beds were oddly comfortable and the cells were snug and cozy. There was no sleeping in as we had to be out of the cells before the first boat of visitors arrived the next morning. I’m sure visitors would have been surprised to see people fast asleep!


The fog lifted enough for a lighthouse tour to offer a 360 degree view of the island while breakfast was enjoyed outside of the Administration Offices.


A sad farewell was said to one of volunteers and docents, Kristen, as she was embarking on

The lighthouse on a foggy night. Photo by Lynne Buckner.

new adventures by moving across the country. As a token, we gave her a pen that was engraved with Alcatraz Prison Regulation #41-Correspondence: “Inmates may correspond only with the approved correspondents. You will refrain from discussing other inmates or institutional affairs. Violent or abusive letters will not be mailed.” Hopefully she knows that everyone on the island is on her approved list.


Thanks to all of the garden volunteers for a fun night and for fantastic gardens!

Posted in Volunteers | Comments Off on Spending the Night

Apple trees on Alcatraz

Abandoned and overgrown orchards are pretty common to see in the country side, left for the birds and wildlife to enjoy the harvest.  Of all the survivor plants on Alcatraz, perhaps some of the most unexpected are the apple trees. Not exactly an orchard, the two trees were planted years ago in the Prisoner Gardens on the west side of the island and they are still producing bright red gems with a yellow blush every autumn.


Ripening island apples. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The trees are believed to have been started by an inmate gardener, who likely had apples for a snack and saved the seeds to grow. I’m sure any gardener today has thought about saving their apple seeds and starting their own trees; but few have the patience to wait years for the tree to mature, not to mention having a safe place where the seedling can be nurtured.


However, Alcatraz inmate gardeners had that time.


Twig cuttings of the trees were taken last December and were couriered to the National Plant Germplasm Repository for Apples, a department of the United States Department of Agriculture for Plant Genetic Research in Cornell, New York, with the hopes of identifying the apples with a cultivar name.


So far, researchers at the Repository have not been able to find a correct id for the trees. As the Alcatraz trees lack a graft union, where the scion (the top half of the tree) is joined to the trunk (the rootstock), we can reason that the trees were started from seed. Starting plants from seed increases the genetic variation and the difficulty of positively identifying the trees. If the trees had been started from vegetative cuttings, then the genetics would be the exact same as the parent plant and would most likely be from a known apple tree which would already be in the database.


While we do not have a name, we can still preserve the trees by keeping them growing. Keith Park, Horticulturist for the National Park Service at the John Muir House in Martinez, California was consulted. Park is the caretaker of Muir’s fruit trees and has also worked as the horticulturist at the well- known Filoli Gardens in Woodside, California and looked after their heirloom fruit trees.


Dormant twig cuttings of the Alcatraz apples were taken during the winter and Park grafted them onto a suitable rootstock. Park chose the rootstock MM.111 EMLA. Rootstocks are used to give the mature tree qualities the desired tree lacks, mostly to control the tree height and to give disease resistance. The scion still determines the kind of fruit produced. What does the MM.111 EMLA stand for? Much of the initial apple research began in England in the early 1900s. The ‘M’ refers to the East Malling Research Station in England; the ‘MM’ prefix refers to Malling-Merton when hybrid trees of the Malling series were crossed with ‘Northern Spy’ apples in Merton, England in the 1920s. The ‘EMLA’ suffix stands for ‘East Malling /Long Ashton’ when rootstocks were bred to be virus free in the 1960s. (Click here to read more about rootstocks).


The MM.111 EMLA rootstock is recommended for dry sandy soils in low rainfall areas (perfect for Alcatraz), has good anchoring capacity, rarely produces root suckers and has good resistance to woolly apple aphids.


Park had rootstock that was already a few years old, and so the diameter of the rootstock was slightly larger than the scion. Typically same size diameters would be used, but for us, it would work. Park described his handiwork:


Grafting technique.

“When I have scion and rootstock material of different sizes I usually do a cleft graft, which involves splitting the rootstock down the middle with a knife about 3/4 of an inch, then shaving the bottom end of the scion to a long, even wedge (like a flat-blade screwdriver) and inserting it into the cleft in the rootstock. The most critical part is aligning the cambium of each piece. If the pieces are not exactly the same diameter (as is often the case) then I insert the scion to one side of the cleft and match up the cambium on one just one side.”


“The next step is to seal and secure the scion to its rootstock so it doesn’t dry out or fall out. I discovered a product called Parafilm, which is a wax impregnated cellophane tape that works great.”


“After the graft has taken the only real maintenance is to periodically rub off any adventitious growth from the rootstock. I’ve heard you should also prune off any flower buds if they appear on newly grafted trees, since it just consumes plant energy at a time when you don’t want fruit anyway.”


The grafted apple trees were grown outside in Woodside and we now have a few of the new apple trees back on the island. One of the trees, planted in the Electric Shop, barely lasted a week, as the wind snapped the tree in half. Luckily, we had a replacement and we can reuse the rootstock. Gardening on the Rock is a challenge but one with many rewards.

Posted in Plants | 1 Comment

The Unknown Alcatraz

Having local Bay Area residents visit Alcatraz is a pretty rare occurrence, and when it does happen, it is usually when they have out-of-town visitors in tow. Very seldom do locals take the 10-minute ferry ride out on the Bay to see their closest National Park.


But this is changing.


Obscura Society, hosts ‘unusual adventures for curious minds’, specializes in tours with unusual access, secret places and unknown history. The Gardens of Alcatraz definitely matches all of these criteria.


Annetta, from the Obscura Society, and her group came out this past Sunday for a tour of the gardens and then pitched in for a couple hours of volunteering.

The group was excited to work clearing the historic lawn, when they learned of the long-term plan of making it into a meadow.


The energetic group met me at Pier 33 and it was easy to tell it was going to be a fun afternoon. The group, many of whom were meeting for the first time, all had shared interests of history, plants and doing something different.


Beginning the tour at the dock, the group was asked the question “What do you think of when you hear the word Alcatraz”? The group spoke up with descriptive words of ‘prison’, ‘island’, ‘Al Capone’, ‘cold’; but no one said ‘gardens’, the very reason that they were there.


The hour and a half walking tour led the group through all areas of the gardens, including two closed areas, and finished on the west side of the island in the Prisoner Gardens. As we walked through the gardens, a group member really understood the importance of passing along family stories from one generation to the next, sharing with me how she asked her grandfather to tell her about his past before he sadly passed away. This sharing of history is part of what we are doing on the island – passing along stories.


Timely, the island’s Alumni Day is this coming Saturday, August 11; when past residents of the island come back and share with visitors their experiences and what life was really like on the Rock.


If you cannot make it to the island this Saturday, plan on checking out what you can learn about your own neighborhood, or even better, ask your grandparents to tell you a story.



Posted in History | Comments Off on The Unknown Alcatraz