A Visit to the Gardens of Alcatraz

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.)

Alcatraz Island

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.

Gardens of Alcatraz, Officers' Row area, The Garden Conservancy

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.

Garden Conservancy, Alcatraz Gardens, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy

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.

Alcatraz Gardens, Garden Conservancy

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.

Alcatraz Gardens, Garden Conservancy, pelargoniums

Perennial geraniums in the Officers’ Row area, near the greenhouse.

Echium candicans, Alcatraz Gardens

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.

Garden Conservancy, Gardens of Alcatraz, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy

Succulents and roses frame a view of the Bay.

Garden Conservancy, Alcatraz Gardens

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.

Alcatraz Gardens, The Garden Conservancy, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy

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!

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13 Comments on “A Visit to the Gardens of Alcatraz”

  1. susan greif Says:

    Never knew all this existed! And I assumed that the chilly winds would prevent much interesting growth. Thanks for correcting my assumptions.

    • Melissa Says:

      When we landed in the early morning, it was chilly but by the end of the tour I had shed my jacket. The leeward side of the island is the warmest. But they never get even frost in the Bay area!

  2. What wonderful pictures! You really captured the beauty of the gardens. I’ve seen them a few times, but I’m always in awe each time I go. It’s great that the Garden Conservancy has taken this project on. Like you, I’d much rather see the plants than the prison. I really enjoyed reading your post!

    • Melissa Says:

      Thanks! I see you are a Californian. More California conference-based posts to come, including possibly one on Flora Grubb, where we had dinner one night – and which I see you know as well. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Thanks! I posted this to my garden club’s facebook page.

  4. Jason Swope Says:

    That was very interesting. I can only imagine that the gardens must have served as a ‘highlight’ in the day for some inmates. What a great restoration project.

  5. I’ve never been before to Alcatraz so i never in a million years would have known how beautiful the gardens are.

    • Melissa Says:

      I think most people who visit there are very taken aback at the beauty of the site. The volunteers have done a remarkable job, but what is even more remarkable is thinking about the officers’ families and some of the inmates who created it to begin with.

  6. This I never knew. If I ever travel down your way I’ll for sure take the tour.

  7. JasonSheridan Says:

    Very interesting read. I was giving a cutting last year of the pink germanium in your photo and told it was from Alcatraz. Did you get the name of that plant by any chance?

    • Melissa Says:

      No, unfortunately I didn’t. You could try contacting either the National Park Service office there or the Garden Conservancy to see if you could get in touch with some of the docents. Good luck!

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