Getaways: On Alcatraz Island, gardens still thrive
“The gardens of Alcatraz are testaments to the human spirit, to the desire to create life and beauty even in a forbidding environment. Perhaps this above all is what makes them so inspiring - and so touching.” - Delphine Hirasuna, “Gardens of Alcatraz”
Andrew Dickey, a museum curator in Cardiff, Wales, went looking for a rare rose called the Bardou Job that once grew at St. Fagan’s Castle. Many thought the rose had simply died out because it hadn’t been seen in Wales for over 100 years. But Dickey didn’t give up. After 11 years, he found his rose via the Internet. Turns out, the Bardou Job was alive and well on the infamous island of Alcatraz.
Twenty-six years after the prison at Alcatraz had shut down, Greg Lowery, a member of the Heritage Rose Group, discovered the dark crimson tea rose buried below a thick overgrowth of blackberry bush.
The Bardou Job wasn’t the only bloomer uncovered at Alcatraz. Since the island was first inhabited by the military in the mid-1800s, the home of the notorious federal penitentiary has been adorned with roses, gladiolas, geraniums, nasturtiums, fuchsias, fig trees, succulents, irises and artichokes, to name just a few.
Now that the Garden Conservancy has breathed life back into those plantings, spring is the perfect time to discover the sweeter side of Alcatraz history.
Gardening began here when the military decided to make the small island a fortress in 1854. At the time, the place was literally a rock, covered by a thin layer of soil, some grasses, and lots of bird guano. Soldiers barged soil from Angel Island and the Presidio, and installed a 23,000-gallon, wooden water tank and the first lighthouse on the West Coast. To make their windy and often fog-shrouded dwelling homey, they planted Victorian gardens. And, when Alcatraz became a military prison, gardening fell to inmates.
The structure of today’s gardens was shaped in the 1920s when the California Spring Blossom and Wildflower Association joined the military in an “island beautification” project, planting trees, shrubs, and seeds.
They wanted to improve the view from San Francisco. The results of that project can still be seen from the city, when in spring a dazzling swath of bright fuchsia color spills over the island’s southwestern slope. This is the Persian carpet groundcover planted to control erosion. The stark, burned-out shell that was once the warden’s house stands above it, a reminder of harsher times.
When Alcatraz became a federal penitentiary in 1934, the warden’s secretary, who had no gardening experience, began tending roses and raising new plants in an old greenhouse. He sought seedlings that could survive the harsh climate and corralled some inmates to help. The most famous of those inmates was Elliott Michener.
Convicted of counterfeiting and sent to Alcatraz after attempting to escape Leavenworth, Michener won the guards’ trust when he turned in prison keys he’d found. He became houseboy to the warden, cleaning the house and helping the warden’s wife with her garden. She gave him seeds; he brought her bouquets from his gardens.
Inmates worked on the windy western side of the Rock, facing San Francisco, where the guard tower stands. Inmate Michener planted, weeded and clipped, transforming the west side of Alcatraz into a terraced cottage garden that included tulips, daffodils, gladiolas and more. He built a greenhouse and a bird feeder.
So nurturing were these gardens to Michener, that after he returned to Leavenworth, he sent a letter to Alcatraz, asking the warden if he could return to his gardens. In his 80s, long after he was paroled and married, he came back to the Rock for an alumni gathering in 1995. At that time, the gardens were overgrown and in poor shape, but he was thrilled to find his fig tree still living. If Michener were alive now, he would see his terraces in bloom again, now under the care of hundreds of volunteers.
On the eastern side of the island, where the wind is gentle, prison staff and their families made their homes and gardens.
After the federal prison closed in 1963, some 200-plus plants continued to survive for 40 years in the island’s harsh climate without fresh water, fertilizer or the aid of human hands.
By the time the island became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation area in 1973 and opened to tourists, the gardens were already overgrown, hidden. Western gulls, snowy egrets, cormorants and hundreds of other birds had returned.
For years, tourists were interested only in a vicarious walk through the cellblock and tales of riots, attempted escapes and legendary inmates the likes of Al Capone and Robert “Birdman” Shroud. Visitors had no idea lush gardens once adorned Alcatraz.
Today, docent-led tours begin on the eastern side, strolling up the main road lined with ferns, geraniums, fuchsias and other plant life. In spring, gulls nest there in the ivy. The walk includes the rose terrace, a rebuilt green house and, amid the foundations of torn-down officers housing, a stroll among irises, poppies, roses and more.
The Bardou Job rose lives on this gentler side of the island. Tour guides may point it out. Best of all, should you visit Wales, you would find cuttings from this very rose are once again thriving at St. Fagan’s Castle.
Alcatraz gardens are free except for major holidays, but ferry rides to the island cost $18.25-$30. Take the 8:45 a.m. or 9:10 a.m. ferry to arrive in time for free, docent-led garden tours, offered at 9:45 a.m. Fridays and Sundays.
Flowers bloom from January to September, but are at their best in spring. Be prepared for unpredictable weather. More information: alcatrazgardens.org/visit.php.