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Check out more on Anthony Englin's garden mystery books at anthonyeglin.com/garden_mystery.

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.

Lowery and Robinson found Bardou behind the home of warden James Johnston, a known rose fancier. It sported only a single flower and was peeping out from a thicket of blackberry brambles. It was so stunted they didn’t know at the time that it was actually a climbing rose, Lowery said.

The pair took cuttings home and started cultivating the rose at their Vintage Gardens nursery in Sebastopol, all the while researching to try to put a real name to it. They finally determined it was Bardou Job. And while it is still rare in Europe, they did find one growing in Paris and a few that had made their way to Australia. They began featuring Bardou Job in their Vintage Gardens nursery catalog.

Lowery said Bardou is a hard rose to grow and is subject to disease, which might explain why so few survive.

Major restoration

But the rare rose experienced an unexpected renaissance in 2000 when a curator for the Welsh National History Museum, at St. Fagan’s Castle near Cardiff, went on an Internet search for Bardou Job, a rose he knew had once graced the gardens of the old estate but hadn’t been seen in decades. When he found Lowery’s website, he was thrilled and ordered six plants.

The rose’s return to St. Fagan’s as part of a major restoration was covered in the British press, tantalized by the connection to Alcatraz. At least one paper suggested it had been lovingly tended by the rock’s most famous resident, Al Capone, an implication disputed by historians who say all Capone tended were the prison toilets. The story, nonetheless, went out on the wires around the world.

Eglin read about it at the time and tucked the story away in his mind, only to revive it when he embarked on his latest mystery last year.

“When I first picked up the story online I was so fascinated, as anyone who was interested in gardening would be. The more I thought about it he more I thought about how I could fictionalize this,” said Eglin, who wound up renaming the rose and making it an English rather than a French rose.

Two Bardou Job’s cultivated by Lowery and Robinson and returned to The Rock are still thriving, said Shelagh Fritz, who manages the now restored Alcatraz Gardens for the National Garden Conservancy.

“The rose does get black spot and tends to drop its leaves mid-summer. It bounces right back though and is even blooming right now,” she said.

Over the last 15 years, it has emerged from obscurity. Its likeness is even featured on products from an iPhone case to window shutters. Although Lowery and Robinson closed their nursery and parted ways, Bardou remains part of the massive display garden they created in Sebastopol. Considered one of the most comprehensive collections of old roses anywhere, the garden is now owned and tended by the non-profit Friends of Vintage Roses.

Hasn’t seen rose

Eglin doesn’t grow Bardou in his own appropriate-to-Sonoma Mediterranean garden. Neither has he laid eyes on the mystery rose; it wasn’t in bloom when he was writing the book last year. But he concedes that by not seeing it, he was perhaps maintaining some of its mystique for his own imagination.

After a decade with St. Martin’s, he decided to self-publish “The Alcatraz Rose” to have more freedom with the story line and promotions. It’s available on Amazon.

“How it got to Alcatraz, probably nobody will ever know,” he said, noting that it most likely came from a cutting, since there are no guarantees with seed that you will actually get the same rose.

But he had fun speculating on how it might have happened.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com, at 521-5204 or on Twitter @megmcconahey.

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