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The Gardens on Alcatraz

Because I have been doing some consulting for the Historic Gardens Project on Alcatraz Island, I have been to the island several times recently. I first heard that there were remnants of gardens on Alcatraz several years ago when I was working on my book Wildly Successful Plants. I learned that many of the plants I was writing about had survived from historic gardens that were planted there. Starting with a military base in the mid to late 1800s and continuing throughout the period when the island was the site of the famous federal prison, inhabitants have been gardening. What survived includes succulents, pelargoniums (geraniums), fuchsias, roses, and many more kinds of plants. These days, there is a full-time gardener on the island and teams of volunteers who work on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The gardens are starting to revive.

Early_march_08_003_copy I took this photo last week in the Officer's Row gardens. In the 1880s there were houses here, with gardens between. After these houses were demolished, in 1941, the places where they once stood became cutting gardens. Here volunteers are tending the renovated gardens while staff is observing their progress.

Dsc_0050_copy Even the less tended areas of the island have a wild beauty. There were concrete residences on the south end of the garden, where employees of the prison lived. These were demolished, and succulents like these Aeoniums have begun to cover them, as if they were nothing but a different sort of rocky cliff. This part of the island is off limits in summer and fall, so that the island's many birds can nest undisturbed. In winter, you can wander over more of the area.

Dsc_0061_copy Ahd this stone wall is covered with various wild and domestic plants. In summer it is abloom with Centranthus (Jupiter's beard).

Early_march_08_009_copy And, of course, the views are spectacular. Worth escaping from the big, dark cell block teeming with tourists and heading for the paths. The blackened skeletons of flower stalks of Agave americana spring up picturesquely here and there in front of ruins and the marvelous views of the surrounding bay.

Early_march_08_007_copy Here is one of the birds of Alcatraz. There are many kinds on the island, including perhaps a few more gulls than most visiting humans would prefer. But these gulls don't seem accustomed to begging for human food, probably because you can only eat in the area near the docks, so they don't get much encouragement. Looking down over the cliffs on the south and west sides of the land, you may see herons, cormorants, and other water birds.

I'll be going out to Alcatraz once a month, and will report on their progress. But already, it is definitely worth a trip to see what is going on in the gardened areas. Or consider becoming a garden volunteer. You can learn more about it at by calling (415) 561-3062 or emailing


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