Monday, April 9, 2012

The gardens of Alcatraz, part 1

Instead of spending Easter Sunday doing the usual egg hunt, we decided to do something different this year: visit Alcatraz. A lot of other people had the same idea and the ferries to the island were packed. Luckily we had made reservations weeks ago and weren’t turned away like so many how showed up expecting to buy a ticket.

This was my third visit to Alcatraz and I was looking forward to exploring the gardens because they had been restored since the last time I had been there.

View of Alcatraz from the ferry

Everybody knows Alcatraz, or The Rock, as the prison island from which nobody ever escaped. But the history of Alcatraz goes back much farther than that. The U.S. military started using Alcatraz as early as 1853, first as a fortress, then as a prison. The U.S. Department of Justice acquired Alcatraz in 1933 and ran it as a federal penitentiary until March 1963.

Interesting quote from one of the inmates who worked in the gardens
Map of Alcatraz

Before Alcatraz was settled, it was mostly rock with virtually no soil, supporting sparse grasses and shrubs. In the early 1860s, the military began to haul in soil from Angel Island to build earthwork defenses against artillery fire. Some of the soil was also used to establish flower gardens around the officers’ quarters. In the 1920s, hundreds of trees and shrubs were planted as part of a general beautification project.

The most significant phase of garden construction began in the mid-1930s when Fred Reichel, the secretary to the warden, convinced the warden to allow prisoners to work in the gardens. At the same time, he sought the advice of the California Horticultural Society and plant breeders on which plants might thrive on Alcatraz and was able to obtain a large variety of Mediterranean-climate plants. The offspring of many of these plants continue to be found in today’s gardens.

In 1941, prisoner Elliott Michener (quoted on the sign shown in the 2nd photo above) began a 9-year stint as the lead gardener. He built a greenhouse and was allowed to order large amounts of seeds and bulbs. His labor helped shaped the terraced gardens on the east side, seen in the photos below.

After the prison closed in 1963, the gardens were abandoned and fell into disrepair together with everything else on the island. Plants that required irrigation for survival died while those that were able to make do with natural rainfall and moisture from the frequent fog—mostly succulents—survived.

In 2003, the Garden Conservancy, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and the National Park Service launched a cooperative project to restore the island’s gardens. With the help of countless volunteers, horticulturists propagated new material from the surviving plants and brought in new introductions appropriate for the harsh climate. These replacements were selected to match plants originally found in the gardens, based on historical photographs.

Now that you know a little more about the history of plants and gardening on Alcatraz, let’s explore the gardens. In this post we’ll look at the east side. In tomorrow’s post, we’ll walk around the southwestern tip of the island to the west side where succulents thrive in the full sun.

We’ll begin along the main road from the dock (#2 on the map above) up the hill to the cell block (#1).

Calla lilies (Zantesdeschia aethiopica) thrive on the protected east side
They are found in many spots along the main road…
…in the terraced Officer’s Row…
…and on the road to the model industries building
Purple African nightshade (Solanum marginatum), clearly thriving here
Calla lilies, poppies and aeoniums
Western sword fern (Polystichum munitum) and Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica)
Ferns growing in a retaining wall
Kenilworth ivy (Cymbalaria muralis)
Jupiter’s beard (Centranthus ruber)
Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans)
Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans)
Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans)
Aenonium with flower stalk
Huge aeonium rosette

The next couple of photos show the Rose Garden Terrace. Started in the 1920s as a rose garden, the area was used during the penitentiary years for propagating plants. That’s pretty much its function today.

Greenhouse on Rose Garden Terrace
Potted plants on Rose Garden Terrace, waiting to be transplanted into their new permanent homes around the island

The next photos are of the Officer’s Row gardens. They were planted around the three officers’ houses, built by the army in 1881 and demolished in 1941. These gardens have been restored to the way they looked in the 1940s and 1950s when they were actively maintained by the prisoners.

Officer’s Row garden
Officer’s Row garden

The warden’s garden at the top of the hill surrounded the warden’s house built between 1919 and 1921 for the army commander. It had a stunning view of San Francisco, as you can see below. The house burned down during the island’s Native American occupation (1969-1971) but offspring of many of the original plants remain.

Spanish dagger (Yucca gloriosa) and a sea of Aeonium arboreum
Jade plant (Crassula ovata) in front of the ruins of the warden’s house
Aeoniums and sea gull
Aeoniums and pride of Madeira
Ruins of the warden’s house, on the right with Agave americana
Agave americana and San Francisco skyline
Agave americana and San Francisco skyline
Many people were wondering what these weird “tree” skeletons are.
No trees at all; they’re dried up flower stalks of Agave americana.
Agave americana flower stalks and San Francisco skyline

Looking at the map of Alcatraz, copied below for convenience, we’re now standing in front of the lighthouse (# 8 on the map).

Map of Alcatraz

In part 2 of this post, we’ll walk around to the left towards the callout that says “Gardens.”


  1. This tour is one I hope to take someday, thank you for such a wonderful account "in the mean time"...

    1. Loree, wait until you see tomorrow's post. The succulents on the west side were jaw-dropping. Huge expanses of aeoniums, cotyledons and crassulas packed together so tightly you wouldn't have been able to fit a sheet of paper between them. Plus ice plants, geraniums and bush sedums all in bloom. So beautiful.

  2. What a unique way of spending time on Easter Sunday and thanks to taking us along on your tour of this very famous (or should I say infamous?) place. There's something so positive, and ironic about gardening and garden tours of the Alcatraz but the plants they have chosen are well suited for the place, able to withstand neglect and exposure. Looking forward to part 2!

  3. It's been 10 years since my trip to Alcatraz, and the gardens are so much more impressive now!

  4. That was really interesting and thanks for the back ground to the gardens, I had no idea that Alcatraz had a garden, having never been there. :)

  5. Thank you for sharing this. I've never had a keen interest in visiting Alcatraz but now that I know they have these gardens, well . . .

  6. I realize I'm very late in finding this post, but I just returned from a long trip to San Francisco, and left completely enamored by the succulents there -- especially those on Alcatraz (what a surprise find!). Coincidentally, I just started a little succulent garden a few weeks ago, because I've always been taken by them. Now, it would be safe to say that I'm obsessed! Thank you for the beautiful photos.

  7. Well. Thanks for the info on those "trees" outside of the SF skyline view. I've been trying to figure out what they could be since 2010!!