Paradise on Devils Island

Alcatraz Island, home of the infamous prison, each day attracts thousands of visitors who are ferried across san Francisco Bay's unforgiving waters to tour the creepy historic cellblock. Over the years, few people noticed the gardens.

Yes, there are gardens on The Rock, at one time at least 2 acres of them, in meager soil amid tumbled ruins and wild over-growth.When the prison closed in 1963, plants maintained by inmates were on their own.The budget-strapped National Park Service took over the site in 1972, and since then the skeleton staff has had its hands full preserving the crumbling buildings, let alone the once-vibrant gardens.

The neglected roses, agaves, ice plants, calla lilies and fuchsias (among nearly 200 native and exotic varieties found so far) have proven to be as tough as the convicts who once tended them, and their resilience is be-

ing rewarded. Led by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and The Garden Conservancy, and fueled by volunteers, restoration of the abandoned gardens is underway.

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or so years shows the gardens to be an intriguing microcosm of how plants are introduced to an initially barren habitat, how humans and plants interact, and national gardening trends.The gardens date to the late 1860s, when the island was being transformed from a U.S. Army fort into a military prison. Officers and their wives, in attempts to make the bleak landscape more inviting, designed small Victorian-style plots planted in soil brought over by barge. Plantings later increased when a gardening rehabilitation program was created for prisoners. (The fascinating history is covered in the 1996 book Gardens of Alcatraz by John Hart, Russell A. Beatty and Michael Boland.) After Alcatraz became a federal penitentiary in 1934, Freddie Reichel, secretary to the warden and self-taught gardener, guided a team of inmates in further improving the island's colorful cascading gardens, which at their peak offered neighboring San Franciscans dramatic views.

Alcatraz gardeners sought out plants from parts of the world with climates similar to that of California's coast; the restoration is teaching just how hardy exotic ornamentals can be. "People always talk about using natives for sustainable gardens," says Carola Ashford, project manager of the Alcatraz Historic Gardens Project for the Garden Conservancy. "These exotics are thriving without a lot of intervention, chemical or otherwise."

"This place is so harsh with all the gray rock and concrete, to see the gardens is to see the island's softer side," says Jayeson Vance, park service ranger. In restored sections visitors linger and take care not to litter.

The hidden gardens of Alcatraz, once apparent only to those who knew where to look, are being set free for all to enjoy. Perhaps one day the plantings will be as powerful a draw as the haunting prison buildings.—

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MAY 2006

It looks like Alcatraz has got me licked—A L capone

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