by Judy M. Zimmerman
After 50 years of living in Sacramento, I finally made it to Alcatraz last April. I expected only to take a Cellhouse Audio Tour of the island’s grim rock concrete fortress, but what a special surprise it was to also discover the beautifully restored gardens surrounding the prison.
Alive with fragrant roses in bloom, sweet peas, lilies, and a large variety of other flowers, the gardens are a stark contrast to the somber prison as they reveal much of the island’s fascinating history.
Alcatraz was first inhabited in the mid 1800’s when it was used as an army fortress, but it soon transitioned into a military prison in 1861. The military began importing soil from nearby Angel Island and the Presidio, and as early as 1865, Victorian-style gardens were planted adjacent to the citadel on the summit.
Later in 1934 when it became a federal prison, to lift their spirits and make the bleak rock look more like home, the gardening continued with the families of wardens, guards, and a few privileged prisoners. The warden’s secretary, Fred Reichel, imported many of the plant species from the world’s other Mediterranean climates. Reichel eventually recruited other inmate gardeners who proved to be natural plantsmen.
While the hardship of Alcatraz’s prisoners have been well-documented, the plants scarcely had an easier time of it. The weather on the island can be harsh–from unrelenting sun to chilling fog and cutting winds. The plants had to be of a hardy variety to survive.
“For eight years the hillside gardens provided a refuge; the work became an obsession, the one thing I could do well,” said prison inmate Elliott Michener.
After parole, Michener wrote to the warden, ”For the first time I’m learning how much better one can do living honestly than by counterfeiting! We have cars and fat bank accounts…And we have a favor to ask: will you send us a bush of our old ‘Gardenia’ rose?”
After the prison closed in 1963, the manicured landscape of flowering terraces, colorful succulents and lawns became overgrown and wild, but survived decades without care.
Then in 2003, the Garden Conservancy and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy formed a partnership with the National Park Service to restore and maintain the gardens.
Dedicated volunteers began in earnest to clear away the overgrowth, sometimes 10 feet high, and the ghosts of Alcatraz amazingly emerged from the tangle of vines: neatly laid out beds and paths, heirloom roses, bulbs and ornamentals.
The gardens of Alcatraz cover about four of the island’s 22.5 acres. They can be easily missed by tourists who visit Alcatraz more intent on seeing where Al Capone was locked up than the drifts of drosanthemum and the sea of aeoniums.
Some are nestled in the foundations of torn-down Victorians, hidden around bends and spread out around the old cell block.
“The gardens are testaments to the human spirit, to the desire to create life and beauty even in a forbidding environment. Perhaps this above all makes them so inspiring—and so touching,” said Delphine Hirasuna in her book, The Gardens of Alcatraz.
Although the gardens are open for viewing all year round, they are special in the spring, which brings the iris, freesia and fuchsia and a ground cover that bursts with pink blooms.
Fortunately, docent volunteer Monica Beary, met us at the Alcatraz dock to lead a tour through the restored gardens, including those that are off limit to most visitors–Officers’ Row and the Rose Terrace.
If You Go
o Visitors should arrive early to take the 9:10 ferry from Pier 33 at San Francisco’s
o To purchase ferry tickets, book well in advance at www.alcatrazcruises.com or call (415)981-7625.
o To schedule a garden tour for a group, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
o For more information: www.alcatrazgardens.org