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Tag Archives: History
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.
In part 3 of our “Gardening through the Decades” series, we look at the Roaring Twenties. A time period known for its glittering excess and the start of the gangster era, this was a period of transition for Alcatraz. Alcatraz the Military Prison was ending, but there were still families on Alcatraz, and they were determined to make their gardens beautiful.
From the blues and purples of the Victorian Era, to the pinks of the 1900s and 1910s, these gardens were all about colorful flowers. This changed in the 1920s as the reigning trend became all about the green. There were still flowers, but the lawns became a fixture for many homeowners.
Likewise, they also had a desire to celebrate and welcome nature. Unlike the Victorians, however, their gardens weren’t allowed to grow wild. Instead, they started attracting wildlife. Bird houses, bird baths, fish ponds, and rock gardens were all the rage for the 1920s gardener. They also planted trees and bushes with bird attracting berries, such as holly and crabapples, in hopes of being a paradise for bird watchers.
The 1920s also marked a shift in landscaping focus. Before, backyard gardens were all the rage. It was a private space for entertaining and for showing off your beautiful collections of flowers. However, with more and more people owning homes in the suburbs, the front yard as a public space became the focal point. You couldn’t have your neighbors walk by and see your front lawn in a deplorable state. So, this space received the most attention with gardening and landscaping. Walkways and driveways were lined with perennials, such as irises, foxgloves, hollyhocks, California poppies, and bachelor’s buttons. Shrubs such as boxwood and holly provided the natural, bird attracting green that was so popular. And the lack of fences reinforced the idea that the front yard was public, and not private.
Alcatraz follows many of these trends. While most families lived in the apartment building, meaning no front yards, houses on the parade ground did have front yards. We also have many of the hallmarks associated with the 1920a.boxwood in Officers’s Row and along the Sally port provide some subtle barriers between walkways and garden space. Likewise, one can see California poppies dotting every garden on Alcatraz.
What is perhaps the most striking feature that relates to the 1920s garden aesthetic is the birdbath in the birdbath garden on the west side. The birdbath was originally designed by inmate Elliot Michener. It was sadly destroyed when the gardens were no longer cared for. Thanks to our handy and multi-talented volunteers, we were able to reconstruct the birdbath that is a pleasant surprise in the Bird Bath Garden. Thanks to our work in the gardens, we have many birds for the bird watchers among us. From the snowy egrets to the variety of songbirds, Alcatraz does attract wildlife.
The Roaring Twenties peaks through in many areas of the Alcatraz gardens. Look around the next time you’re out there and see if you can spot any of the historical elements.
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?
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.