ISSUE 91  |  Roadtrip

Escape to Alcatraz: Go Directly to Jail to Tour the Gardens

September 24, 2013 10:00 AM

BY Janet Hall

Who knew that for decades San Francisco’s famous Alcatraz prison harbored not only notorious criminals, but also a collection of lush gardens? 

The Gardens of Alcatraz were planted more than 150 years ago for the benefit of those serving duty, those serving time, and the San Francisco residents who didn’t want to look at the stark island eyesore in the middle of the bay. Over several decades, officers and inmates carved terraces, built greenhouses, and cultivated gardens on the rocky windswept island.

Abandoned after the prison closed in the early 1960s, the Gardens of Alcatraz are a study in survival. Many of the hardy and humble Mediterranean plants chosen by the prison warden (with advice from the California Horticulture Society) in the 1930s proved to be good choices for the harsh environment as they not only survived, but thrived in the four decades of neglect. In 2003, the Garden Conservancy, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and the National Park Service joined forces to restore and maintain the historic gardens. Set in the crumbling foundations of old prison building and walls, these enchanting gardens are worth a visit. 

Photographs courtesy of the Garden Conservancy.

Above: A view of the Golden Gate Bridge gives no hint of Alcatraz’s harsh environment not only for people, but also for plants. Photograph by Shelagh Fritz, Garden Conservancy’s project manager for the Gardens of Alcatraz.

Above: With a new greenhouse and composting center, the rose terrace serves as the center of gardening activities on Alcatraz. Photograph by Elizabeth Byers.

Above: In the 1920s the military undertook an island beautification project and prisoners planted hundreds of trees, shrubs and seeds. The gardens along Alcatraz’s main road were part of this effort. Surviving plants include yellow bush lupines, pink Centranthus ruber, and pelargoniums. Photograph by Elizabeth Byers.

Above: Free docent-led garden tours are offered on Fridays and Sundays at 9:30 am from the Alcatraz dock. Tours are free, but please note that there is a charge for ferry service to the island. And, especially in summer months, ferry tickets sell out in advance. Photograph by Elizabeth Byers.

Above: Hardy succulents, including these aeoniums, survived the harsh island environment and years of neglect. Photograph by Shelagh Fritz.

Above: Gardens along Officers’ Row were cultivated to provide cut flowers, including bearded iris, purple limonium, and yellow daylilies for the officers’ quarters. Photograph by Elizabeth Byers.

Above: Abundant Chasmanthe florbunda stands in contrast to the stark prison wall behind. Photograph by Shelagh Fritz.

Above: Officers’ Row cutting gardens, in a photograph by Shelagh Fritz.

Above: The Gardens of Alcatraz at dusk. Photograph by Marion Brenner via Pacific Horticulture.

The Garden Conservancy offers the key to many of America’s Secret Gardens. Not able to be in the San Francisco area soon? Visit the Gardens of Alcatraz Blog to see what’s blooming.

Alcatraz isn’t the only island prison growing something, see Orange is the New Green: A Prison Island on Rikers Island.