The gardens of Alcatraz, part 2

In yesterday’s post, I described the gardens on the east side of Alcatraz. Today we’ll continue our tour on the west side. I thought the gardens there would be similar to what I’d already seen on the other side of the island, but I was wrong. It was even better! A true paradise for succulent lovers, as you will see very shortly.

Here is our trusty map again for orientation:

Map of Alcatraz

As you walk around the lighthouse (#8 on the map), you’re greeted by a carpet of pink Drosanthemum floribundum, one of the many kinds of iceplants from South Africa. It clearly thrives in this exposed spot which, like most of the west side, gets plenty of sun.

Drosanthemum floribundum…
…or “Persian carpet,” as the island residents used to call it
I love how it trails over the edge of this retaining wall
Not the most spectacular iceplant flowers up close but en masse the effect is spectacular

Just a few hundred feet down the path is where the real spectacle begins. Aeoniums packed together like sardines in a can, interspersed with Mexican bush sedum (Sedum praealtum) and jade plant (Crassula ovata).

Aeonium paradise at the base of the cellhouse
Perfect specimens of Aeonium arboreum…
…interspersed with Mexican bush sedum (Sedum praealtum) and jade plant (Crassula ovata)
Jade plant (Crassula ovata)
Jade plant (Crassula ovata) up close. Check out the massive trunk!

As you descend the path, other succulents appear in the mix. The magenta-flowered vygie (Lampranthus amoenus) beckons you to step closer. According to The Gardens of Alcatraz, this patch of lampranthus is from cuttings taken from one of two surviving original plants.

The magenta-flowered Lampranthus amoenus definitely stands out
The magenta iceplant on the left is Lampranthus amoenus,
the yellow one on the right is Scopelogena verruculata
Lampranthus amoenus interspersed with white sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima)
Lampranthus amoenus

Up close, you realize how tightly packed these plants are. The vigor here is astounding.

Scopelogena verruculata with several kinds of aeonium
Scopelogena verruculata next to a colony of aeoniums packed in so tight, they look squished!
All of these are aeoniums…
…maybe somebody can help ID them?
I couldn’t believe how tightly massed together these plants were
Would this qualify as monstrose growth?
Aeonium flower next to bear’s breeches (Acanthus mollis)
This seagull looks particularly content

To my delight, I spotted several clumps of Cotyledon orbiculata, often called “pig’s ears.” In addition to the regular green form, seen in bloom in the photo below, there also were three other varieties with leaf colors ranging from grayish green to a light blue-gray. They all had the typical red leaf margins that appear in good light.

Several forms of Cotyledon orbiculata
Aeonium arboreum var. atropurpureum (right) and Cotyledon orbiculata (left)
All of these are Cotyledon orbiculata

I did a double-take when I spotted these fox-tail agaves (Agave attenuata). They are possibly the most frost-sensitive agaves and yet they look as healthy as can be in a place that is buffeted by the elements in the winter. Temperatures simply must not drop enough to harm them.

Agave attenuata growing amidst the aeoniums and bush sedum
Agave attenuata

Not far away, I saw another agave, Agave parryii var. truncata. I don’t think this species grew here during the penitentiary years, but it’s a great fit for this exposed slope.

Agave parryii var. truncata

Continuing on the path, I spotted a Chasmanthe floribunda, a South African bulb. Chasmanthe floribunda grows all over the island, but this was one of only a few clumps in bloom. The others must be done already since this bulb typically blooms in the winter.

Chasmanthe floribunda

The next spectacle that took my breath away was this carpet of yellow-flowering Mexican bush sedum (Sedum praealtum) and magenta-flowered Pelargonium ‘Prince Bismarck’. The cellhouse forms a somber backdrop to this cheery scene.

Sedum praealtum and Pelargonium ‘Prince Bismarck’
Sedum praealtum and Pelargonium ‘Prince Bismarck’
Sedum praealtum and Pelargonium ‘Prince Bismarck’
with bear’s breeches (Acanthus mollis) on the right

Most century plants (Agave americana) on Alcatraz seem to be growing on the steep western slopes that extend down to the water. This small colony was nestled into a protected corner near the path.

Agave americana
I really appreciated the interpretive signs all over the island
Variegated Agave americana, perched on a cliff above the water
Agave flower stalks poking out above a retaining wall,
with the San Francisco skyline in the distance
The white building on top of the slope covered with pride of Madeira (Echium candicans)
is the greenhouse built by inmate Elliott Michener who was the unofficial head gardener
from 1941-1950.

I spotted just a few echeverias, but this clump of Echeveria imbricata was particularly nice.

Echeveria imbricata
Echeveria imbricata

Toward the bottom of the hill where the path runs into the recreation yard, the terrain flattens out. Instead of succulents, you see colorful plantings of annuals and perennials. If it weren’t for the fences and the hulking specter of the cellhouse above you, this could be a city park or somebody’s garden.

Annual and perennial plantings
Annual and perennial plantings
White African daisy (Osteospermum fruticosum) and purple Pelargonium ‘Prince Bismarck’
Wallflower (Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve') dominating this corner with its purple flowers
On the right, the classic California poppy (Eschscholzia californica).
On the left, a fancy variety most likely introduced during the restoration.

I had expected to find significant clumps of aloes on Alcatraz but aside from a few lone specimens growing at the base of aeoniums, this was the only larger expanse of aloes I saw.

Expanse of aloes. I couldn’t get close enough to attempt an identification.

This is the very last photo I took at the end of the garden path: the view across San Francisco Bay towards Sausalito, punctuated by agave flower stalks.


I hope you enjoyed this tour of the gardens of Alcatraz. I was very happy to have come at the right time of year to enjoy this spectacle of color and texture.

The Garden Conservancy offers docent-led garden tours every Friday and Sunday at 9:30am from the Alcatraz dock. You need to take the first ferry of the day to go on one of these tours.

The Garden Conservancy also operates a great web site, The Gardens of Alcatraz, where you can find a great deal of information about the history of the gardens and the restoration.


  1. Because Alcatraz is surrounded by water whose temperature rarely goes below 50F, the island is literally in a temperature zone warmer than its landlocked neighbors. January is the most pleasant month to visit because the summer fogs are absent and winds are mild because temperature differential between the coast and valley are minimal. And the birds are mostly gone so their droppings are gone too. It's been up in the high 60's on the island while SF is low 60's on the same day.

    1. Bracey, that makes perfect sense. I can't imagine that the gardens could be any more beautiful than they were at Easter. I have never seen succulents packed together like that. They looked as healthy and happy as any plant can be!

  2. I'd say that the poppy on the right is a fancy variety too. It is much redder than typical California poppies.

    Thanks for the tour! I've still never been to Alcatraz to see the gardens. I considered applying to the garden conservancies fellowship the year it was at Alcatraz but then I had a full blown panic attack at the thought of being stranded out there on the island and decided to pass.

    1. Kaveh, I think it would be hard to be on Alcatraz day in, day out. The excitement of being there would wear off quite quickly!

      The poppy on the right *was* a bit more red than you'd expect. I bet they were from a package of mixed seeds because there were other unusual colors, too.

  3. What a beautiful place! I wish we had gone there on our weekend trip to S.F. Aaah! Now it is a destination for sure! Great post!

    1. Candy, I'll try to make it for one of the early morning garden tours. I'd love to walk around with a docent who knows the gardens inside and out. Unfortunately, some trails were closed last Sunday because of nesting birds. For example, we couldn't go on the Agave Trail.

  4. Silly to think it but can you even begin to imagine how many thousands of dollars worth of succulents are growing there? Wow.

    1. I was amazed by how perfect most of them looked. The climate must be just about ideal. And talk about perfect succulent tapestries. I was especially fond of the Cotyledon orbiculata, growing cheek by jowl. No Yucca rostrata, though, LOL.

    2. I agree, they could raise some money for the upkeep of Alcatraz by selling some off to the tourist, who wouldn't want to free a jail plant, lol What a conversation piece that would be in your garden!

    3. Sandee, I also think that would be a great idea. Aeoniums, jade plants, echeverias, aloes, etc. are all easy to propagate and would make a unique living souvenir.

      I must admit that I did buy a keepsake for myself at Alcatraz: a piece of the Rock, literally! At the museum store they are selling pieces of concrete from demolished walls. The proceeds go to an Alcatraz restoration fund. I should take a photo of my chunk and post it. It has multicolored aggregate in it (black, gray, red, orange).

  5. The offering on part 2 (West side) is even better indeed, succulent heaven! Love the way blocks of the same succulent carpets large areas, spectacular!

    1. The succulent carpets were indeed stunning. I've never seen anything quite like it.


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