It was found surviving in neglect in one of the most horticulturally inhospitable places on earth. But the discovery of a deep red rose growing in back of a deserted warden’s house on Alcatraz Island in 1989 set off an international stir in the world of roses.
Dubbed “The Alcatraz Rose,” it was later identified by its discoverer, well-known heritage rose rescuer Gregg Lowery of Sebastopol, as Bardou Job, a crimson-black French climbing rose introduced back in 1888 and thought to be all but extinct.
The mystery surrounding the rose remains murky. How did it come to Alcatraz, a bleak federal prison housing some of the nation’s most notorious criminals, including mobster Al Capone? Who purchased it and why? And even more significantly, how could it survive nearly 30 years of neglect on that rocky, foggy, wind-whipped, god-forsaken rock, where little plant life can grow without human intervention?
The possibilities so intrigued Sonoma writer Anthony Eglin that he was inspired to spin his latest British mystery story around “The Alcatraz Rose.”
It is the sixth in a series of English Garden Mysteries by the retired advertising man and avid gardener whose former pocket-sized plot in Marin was once honored with a Golden Trowel Award by Garden Design magazine. A decade ago he combined his writing skills, his love of gardening and his familiarity with England’s great gardens (after co-producing a series of DVDs focusing on the finest, like Sissinghurst) into a mystery writing career. His first book, “The Blue Rose,” published by St. Martin’s Press, was awarded the Prix Arsène Lupin, France’s top honor for mystery writing.
No one wants to spoil a mystery so you won’t learn here how Eglin’s sleuth, Lawrence Kingston, a retired botanist with a taste for English tea and French wine, solved it, along with a few murders along the way.
“The real story is fascinating enough as it is,” said the writer over tea in the antiques-filled home he shares with his wife, Suzie. “The rose that they found is a rather unusual coloration. It was red, almost black.”
Hybridized in France
What Eglin does know for sure is that the rose was hybridized in 1887 in the Orientales region of Southern France and named after Jean Bardou, who made a fortune on cigarette rolling papers. The Job brand is still sold today.
It was a stylish rose in its day and cultivated in American gardens. In the April 1909 issue of “Country Life in America,” rosarian Leonard Barron called Bardou Job, a hybrid tea, the best deeply colored, large-flowered single rose, “flecked with an almost velvety black sheen.” While it didn’t flower as freely as some varieties, it was “worth waiting for... creating a feeling of real achievement.”
Bardou Job is a climber, but when Lowery and his former partner Phillip Robinson found it while on a rescue mission with the Heritage Rose Group, it was small, straggly and bush-like, stunted by decades of neglect.
Going back to the Civil War, inhabitants of Alcatraz island defied nature, importing earth and water to create gardens and pretty up the place. Other plants were introduced for erosion control. When it was under the control of the U.S. Army, a beautification campaign was launched. And even after it became a federal prison in 1933, lucky inmates got to tend the gardens. Wardens and their families, who had to live on the island, also created gardens for food and pleasure.
Check out more on Anthony Englin's garden mystery books at anthonyeglin.com/garden_mystery.