In mid-September, I headed to the Bay Area to attend the annual APLD conference, which took us to an impressive number of gardens and made me wish I could grow some of the plants I saw. Before the conference began, however, I spent a couple of days visiting my son, who has just moved to San Francisco to work. One morning, I got up early and took the ferry over to Alcatraz Island. Unlike most tourists, however, I never set foot in any of the prison buildings. I was there to see the Gardens of Alcatraz.
As some of you may already know, Alcatraz served as a maximum security federal prison from 1933 to 1963, when it was closed for budgetary reasons. (Prior to 1933, it was a military prison, dating from the late 1800’s.)
Seen from the San Francisco Bay in the early morning, Alcatraz’s appearance is more than a little foreboding.
Although its nickname is “The Rock,” from early in its history, the officers’ families and later the inmates sought to soften its forbidding slopes and surfaces by planting flowers. When the Bureau of Prisons tore down two homes that had previously been occupied by these families, their foundations were converted to flower gardens tended by families and inmates.
An area of the old Officers Row gardens, open to the public only through the tours offered by the Garden Conservancy two mornings a week.
Another section of the gardens in the old Officers’ Row area.
In 1986, the prison became a National Historic Landmark, but it wasn’t until 2003 that The Garden Conservancy began partnering with the National Parks Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy to clear away over 20 years’ worth of neglect of the garden areas. Today, Garden Conservancy volunteers, working through the NPS, lead fascinating and informative free tours ranging over much of the island on Friday and Sunday mornings. My two guides, both first-rate in terms of their knowledge of Alcatraz’s history as well as that of the gardens, met a group of us on the 9:10 a.m. ferry on Sunday morning and soon we were off.
Monica Beary (left) and Corny Foster (right) await us. Steps to climb? There were lots.
I was surprised to see plants like old roses, fuschias and geraniums (as well as succulents) in profusion. Our volunteers explained that these were “survivor” plants that had been discovered in many locations when the GC’s restoration work began. The plants introduced by the inmates and families were exotics; the climate (Sunset Zone 17) is mild and Mediterranean in nature.
Perennial geraniums in the Officers’ Row area, near the greenhouse.
Echium candicans (Pride of Madeira), a North African native, grows in the Gardens of Alcatraz. It’s a favorite of hummingbirds.
Almost everywhere, the view out to the Bay reminds visitors how isolated and grim “The Rock” would be without these gardens to soften it.
Succulents and roses frame a view of the Bay.
An Agave americana in flower on the edge of the island.
At the end of our tour, we took in views of the west end sloped areas of the island – the only gardens that most prisoners could see.
Today these areas are planted heavily in succulents interspersed with other plants, such as Gaura, which can tolerate the rocky soil and limited rainfall of the site.
If you’re fortunate enough to visit the Bay Area over a weekend, the Garden Conservancy offers tours of the Gardens of Alcatraz on Friday and Sunday mornings at 9:30. You’ll need to book the 9:10 ferry, nothing later, if you want to get there in time. And for more information on the gardens, check out Bay Nature’s online article and the Conservancy’s own website. Highly recommended!