Gardens of AlcatrazCredit: Photo by Tracy S. MorrisAlcatraz has a number of nicknames including “Devil’s Island” and “Pelican Island.”  But the island prison, located in San Francisco Bay, is best known as “The Rock.”  This hardly makes it feel like a garden spot, but from the very first moment that the wives of Union soldiers moved to the island, gardening has played a part in the daily life of Alcatraz’s residents.

After the prison closed in 1963, the gardens fell into ruin.  But beginning in 2003, the Garden Conservancy, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and the National Parks Services launched a joint effort to restore and keep up the gardens of Alcatraz.  Along the way, volunteers have recorded the history of this little-known, softer side of “The Rock.”

Prior to the 1800s, the island now known as Alcatraz was simply Pelican Island.  The land did not even resemble its present shape.  Instead it looked like a tiny bump of land with sparse, scrubby vegetation.  In the mid 1800’s the island became an army fortress.  Then as the Civil War escalated, it became a prison for Confederate soldiers.  During this time the military changed the shape of the island by importing soil from nearby Angel Island.  Along with the soil came fern seeds that grew into many ferns.  The military also planted ivy and Century Plants at this time to control erosion. 

When officer’s wives settled on the island, they began to garden as a social outlet.  These women would gather in their Victorian-style gardens for social afternoons to sip tea when the weather permitted.  Eventually, military prisoners took over portions of the gardening duties.

By the time the Federal Bureau of Prisons took over the islands, the gardens had grown to include a rose garden, a greenhouse and terraces.  Officials with the prison allowed trusted prisoners to care for the land around the prison walls.  These prisoners turned the western slopes of the island into several gardens and even built greenhouses for tender plants.
Greenhouse of AlcatrazCredit: Photo by Tracy S. Morris
The California Horticultural Society assisted Warden’s Secretary Fred Reichel in selecting Mediterranean plants that would survive the rocky soil, cold winters and windy conditions that the island provided.  Plants that survived include hardy bulbs such as daffodil and paperwhite, shrubs such as cypress and hawthorn and trees such as figs.

Reichel began the project as a novice gardener and learned through repeated failures.  Eventually he convinced the warden to allow prisoners to garden as a form of rehabilitation.

One such prisoner was Elliott Michener, who served a term in Alcatraz for counterfeiting.  Michener took on garden duty so that he could find a means of escape.  He soon decided that there would be no escape from the island, yet in the gardens he found his own personal escape from the harsh reality of prison life.  For nine years, Michener tended the gardens of the island prison.  Upon his release, he went on to a successful career in landscaping and became one of the few success stories of Alcatraz.

In his 80’s Michener wrote that “(tending the gardens was) the one thing I could do well.”   

After the closing of the prison, all but the hardiest vegetation on the island died.  Plants such as the agave survived while retaining walls deteriorated from lack of care.  Some plants that seem to have no business existing in the landscape, such as globe artichoke, are a tantalizing mystery.

Today, visitors to Alcatraz can tour the restored gardens and learn about how gardening was a central featPlants on Alcatraz IslandCredit: Photo by Tracy S. Morrisure in the daily lives of Alcatraz residents.  The tour features hardy plants that have survived neglect on the island.  A number of hybrid roses found on the island were previously thought extinct.

Although the gardens at Alcatraz are open year round, the best time to visit is from January to September.  Free volunteer-led tours of the gardens are available on Fridays and Sundays at 9:30 a.m. starting from the Alcatraz dock.  The tours are a good way to see gardens that are off-limits to visitors, including Officer’s row and the Rose Terrace.  Alcatraz Island is open every day of the week except for Christmas and New Years. There is no charge to visit, but it is accessible only via ferry service, which charge a fare. Ferry tickets can sell out several days in advance, so it is a good idea to call for rates and availability.