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Tag Archives: alcatraz gardens
In part 4 of our “Gardening through the Decades” series, we go from the glittering excess of the twenties into the Great Depression. The transformation from Military Prison to Federal Penitentiary finished in 1933 and from there on out, the military days were over. Several areas were reconstructed for the new use. In particular, the houses on Officers’s Row, save for the Doctor’s House, were torn down and transformed into gardens. New rules about plants were implemented, such as nothing could be higher than waist height, lest prisoners hide behind the shrubs. And prisoners were dangerous, meaning that instead of a steady stream of gardening labor, there weren’t a lot of people to maintain the vast gardens.
Gardening itself was going through a severe transformation and lack of resources. The Great Depression brought most gardening advancements to a standstill. There wasn’t enough money for most Americans to eat, let alone pay for the expensive upkeep of a vibrant garden. If the crops themselves couldn’t survive, how were ornamental plants supposed to?
Those that were lucky enough to afford a garden did have some trends, however. Large rose gardens were popular in the 1930s. Another popular trend was a focus on vegetables and food gardens. If the stores weren’t providing enough food to eat, perhaps your own little plot of land could. Hedges were sculpted in a boxier style, like the styles of the 1900s and 1910s. Plants such as hydrangeas, lilacs, and hostas were also popular as a pop of color.
Overall, however, the gardens were a luxury few could afford. What was once a sprawling, beautiful, lush garden could be transformed into a scraggly plot of dust in a matter of weeks. People had to cut corners in order to survive and gardens were among the first things to go. There were no longer garden parties in outdoor salons or front yards that promoted public space and friendly interaction. Everyone was trying to survive.
Still, Alcatraz does have some 1930s touches sprinkled throughout. Hydrangeas are prominent in the Rose Terrace and a particularly beautiful one is found along the walkway up to the cell house. There are also roses found in Officers’ Row, the Rose Terrace, and along the terraces on the West Side. It took a while for gardens to recover from the Great Depression, but they would. They would come back brighter and more beautiful than ever.
Other than rain and fog drip, Alcatraz has no fresh water.
And yet, walk through the gardens at any time of the year, especially in spring and summer, and you’ll see beautiful flowers in bloom. How do we do it?
Alcatraz gets its freshwater in two ways: shipped in from the city, and collected from the rain. The city water is shipped in on a daily basis and is used to supply the entire island: the water you drink, the water you use to wash your hands, the water we clean with, all shipped in. This can be a problem for the gardens as the humans get priority. If the water is running low, our irrigation systems will be shut off.
So, we needed to come up with a way to get water without competing with thirsty guests. This is where the rainwater comes in. The first garden to test out a rainwater catchment system was the West Side Gardens. The large tanks at the back of the lawn collect rainwater from the cellhouse and stores it to be used throughout the summer, and fall. With a maze of hoses, we’re able to connect this system to the entire West Side and water it for most of the dry season. This allows us to be more environmentally friendly with our gardening practices, and also saves the park money.
This catchment system was a success, which meant it was time to turn to other gardens. There is a cistern behind the water tower that was thought to provide fresh water to the laundry building during the Federal Penitentiary. Upon removing the covering, we discovered there was over 70,000 gallons of water still in the cistern, enough to water all of the gardens for 10 years! Now there was the question of how to use it, and how to refill it. With a specially designed water pump from WaterSprout, we use a solar panel behind the greenhouse in the Rose Terrace to pump water from the cistern and to the Rose Terrace. From there, the hose is attached to our irrigation system and waters the Rose Terrace. To refill the cistern, we are testing out a method in which we take water from the roof of the Laundry Building and pump it to the cistern. This is still in a trial and error phase, but hopefully we can get it down to an art during the rainy season.
The next development for our water catchment system is to refill the rainwater tanks behind the upper restroom. Currently we have 3000 gallons of water being collected. This supply runs out by early summer and then we revert back to using water barged in from the city. We aim to refill these tanks with the cistern water and keep off imported city water year-round. There may be no natural freshwater on Alcatraz, but with patience and ingenuity, we can make our gardens beautiful with the rain water freely given.
Over the years, gardeners have developed ways to keep the plants alive and beautiful. From prisoners with garden hoses to Shelagh Fritz and the water catchment system, the gardeners have worked with San Francisco’s climate to create beautiful flowers.
However, things are starting to change. Climate change is having an impact on the plants around Alcatraz. San Francisco used to have predictable and stable weather. It would rain from about November to January. It would be dry and foggy in the summer. And generally, the temperatures would stay between 50- and 70-degrees Fahrenheit year round, with a few days in August raising above. This predictable weather pattern is great for gardeners as it allows for planning. You can collect rainwater in the winter and then use what you collected throughout the summer to keep the gardens thriving. The lack of frost meant that plants could bloom longer and grow larger, something all gardeners want. While it’s true non-native plants can have a harder time with the climate, with proper care, they can thrive.
One of the first major signs of climate change affecting the plants on Alcatraz was the California drought. The drought from 2011 to 2017 was one of the worst in California’s history. 2011 to 2014 was the driest period in California history since record keeping began. In 2001, the annual precipitation was 25.03 inches. In 2011, the annual precipitation was 15.64 inches, nearly ten inches less than ten years previously (Data from Golden Gate Weather Services: https://www.ggweather.com/sf/monthly.html). Because of the drought, there wasn’t water available during the summer from the water catchment system. Even on areas where the island was not watered regularly suffered. The Persian carpet used to look very vibrant and pink on the cellhouse slope. Even after nearly three years of steady rainfall, it has yet to recover.
The average yearly temperature has also increased (see graph). The average temperature for the year has not been 55 degrees Fahrenheit since 1975. Two years in a row (1996 and 1997) the average temperature has been above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. And while an increase of about one or two degrees doesn’t seem like a lot, it can wreak havoc on the plants.
Frost is starting to appear on Alcatraz, which as any gardener knows, can cause plants to hibernate and in some cases die. Summers are experiencing less fog and winters less rain with the rain coming in short downpours that just runoff. Gardens and gardeners can adapt over time. However, what can be said for wild landscapes?
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.
The term ‘invasive’ is often misused to label plants or anything that is intrusive in the natural environment. It is something I have only recently began to question. What actually validates a plant being invasive? (I’m going to stick to just talking about plants… I am a gardener after all!) My experience with talking to the public when removing invasive or unwanted plants has been pretty limited, but this past week as I was weeding the lawn, a guest on the island asked me, “Are you weeding invasive grasses?” Without really thinking about the question, I said, “Yeah.” The grasses we were removing from the lawn were crabgrass, annual bluegrass, and rattail six weeks grass. After he walked away I was left thinking, “Are those really considered ‘invasive’?” This led me to a bit of research in pursuit of an answer…
Plants that are invasive are actually scientifically categorized as so. It seems like scientists also have trouble labeling whether or not a plant is invasive or how plants can eventually become invasive over a long period of time. Plants that aren’t native to an area aren’t considered to be an invasive species until they have a negative impact in disrupting a native area. The displacement of native species and the ability for a non-native to cause economic and human harm are the two attributes for a plant becoming an invasive species. The Environmental Detection Distribution and Mapping System (EDDMS) have a simple list of characteristics showing the differences between an invasive and an ornamental plant:
The three grasses we were removing from the lawn are actually not on the invasive list for California. They are weeds, unwanted in our native sedge lawn, but aren’t labeled as invasive. Plants can however become invasive over a period of time. Because of this, it’s important to monitor non-natives and their growth in native areas.
This graph is a good representation of how plants begin to become a threat to natives and the actions that should take place to keep it under control.
During the lag phase and early recognition is when it is less costly and easier to eradicate. To prevent plants from reaching levels of higher efforts to control, it is crucial to catch them and be aware of the plant’s potential threat to a native area.
So, with all that being said, let’s see if we can clear up some misunderstanding on a few plants that call Alcatraz home. I think my favorite example, is the Echium candicans or commonly known as Pride of Madeira. It is a plant native to the island of Madeira, but has been introduced to the coast of California and thrives very well here. Many think that this plant is invasive because it is found among the hillsides and coastal bluffs mixed with native plants. Although it does spread fairly easily, it has shown no threat to native plants and is listed on the California Invasive Plant Council, (Cal-IPC), as a limited threat. It is a well admired plant on the island and copes well with the high winds and little rainfall. It is an island survivor plant that has naturalized itself and is a great pollinator for bees.
On the other hand, English ivy, (Hedera canariensis), is a plant that is considered to be a high threat on the Cal- IPC list. It is found all over the island and was one of the more prevalent plants contributing to the overgrowth in the gardens and is still a plant that we are consistently working on cutting back to keep it at bay from the garden beds. In other overgrown areas though, the ivy plays a vital role during water bird nesting season. They use the ivy overgrowth as a nesting site to lay their eggs and raise their young. Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus), is another plant found on the island that is listed as a high threat and we eradicate it from the garden beds, but leave it be in overgrowth areas because the birds also use it for nesting.
Jupiter’s beard (Centranthus ruber), and Mimosa tree (Albizia distachya), are examples of plants on the island that are commonly mistaken as invasive. They both are island survivors and spread fairly easily, but neither is listed on Cal-IPC as invasive. We like to use the term ‘aggressive’ and we monitor them and remove any unwanted seedlings. The mimosa tree is a nesting site for Anna’s hummingbirds and Jupiter’s beard adds a seasonal burst of color throughout the gardens.
I hope this clears up some confusion about what invasive actually signifies. Just because a plant isn’t native doesn’t make it invasive. The invasive plants on the island are kept in check and tell the story of the islands past gardeners. For today’s gardeners, you should check local plant lists for invasive species before purchasing.