The restored rose of Alcatraz

Alcatraz Island. Photo by Andrea McLaughlin

On many fogless evenings, Alcatraz Island can be seen sitting resolutely in the middle of the Bay. The lighthouse atop it flicking its light across the water much like the retreating sun. At the same time tourists and staff on the island disembark from the last ferry docking at Pier 33.

This wasn’t always the case however, for a long time Alcatraz Island was the end of the line. Today it is still a place of infamous celebrity, and if you keep your ear to the ground you might just find a hidden gem there. This is the true story of Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, a rare French rose, some hard-nosed restoration efforts, and the rose’s journey back home.

History of the Rock

Even before modern colonization of the Bay took place, the native Ohlone tribe used the island as a place of internment. It was afterall a desolate rock in the middle of the Bay, far from the mainland. From then on, it was a place where survival was key and boredom was rampant.

In 1847 Alcatraz Island or “Island of the Birds” was surveyed by the 10th Military Department as a possible stronghold for San Francisco Bay’s defensive plan. This fort never saw combat but was garrisoned all throughout the civil war. It was inevitably made into a military prison. Everyone from Confederate sympathizers to American Indians were confined to the place but inmates were mainly army deserters.

The fort’s guns, batteries, barracks and citadel were improved upon steadily as the years went by, each upgrade being built on top of the last. Soil and root systems were packed in to act as a soft barrier between brick defensive positions and incoming cannonfire. The imported dirt also acted to combat the dullness of life on Alcatraz, since creating or working in a garden provided an escape for whoever was eager. The military prison continued on through the turn of the century and in October of 1933 was turned over to the Bureau of Prisons.

From 1934 to 1963, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary held the most unruly prisoners of the great depression and the prohibition era. Men such as Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Mickey Cohen, and Robert Stroud “The Birdman of Alcatraz” were incarcerated there. During this era of life on Alcatraz many gardeners were photographed around the island. Prison staff, wives, and prisoners alike posed (some covering their faces), in small gardens all around the island. Color shots were sometimes taken of gardeners displaying their vibrantly colored flowers.

The island returned to the birds when the prison closed in 1963, but only for a short time. Native American civil rights protesters began occupying the island calling for a return of the federal land to the native people who felt it belonged to them again. The island was occupied a few times in 1964 for short periods of time, but in 1969 a movement co-led by Richard Oakes called the Indians of all Tribes staged another occupation. This time the occupiers set up to stay. They attempted to reconcile with the U.S. Government and had plans to make Alcatraz into an American Indian cultural hub which would include American Indian studies, an American Indian spiritual center, an American Indian museum, and a ecology center. The occupation lasted 19 months and ended after several buildings on Alcatraz mysteriously caught fire and  government officials came to removed the activists.  

In 1972 Alcatraz island was designated as national park land, citing it as an important bird sanctuary. In 1986 the island achieved the status of National Historic Landmark.

Alcatraz Rose mystery

After the prisoners, prison staff and staff families left, all the gardens became overgrown and quickly disappeared. However, a small group of historians knew there used to be gardens planted out there. This is why in 1989, a team of historic rose cultivators came out to the Rock to see what they could find. They were not disappointed — in the back of the warden’s house was an unidentifiable rose surviving within a thicket of blackberries. Historic rose cultivators took a clipping of the rose back to their nursery and nurtured the plant back to life. At first the mysterious “Alcatraz Rose” perplexed many Bay Area garden aficionados. However, upon close  examination the rose was identified as Rosa Bardou Job, one of the rarest of the 100,000 known rose varieties that was historically found in Wales.

This particular rose was bred by Gilbert Nabonnand in 1882. The rose was named after the french rolling paper entrepreneur Jean Bardou (JOB papers). The Bardou Job is a rare tea hybrid that is hard to classify. It is by nature a floriferous climbing rose with some green foliage that complements the bold petals. The rose features almost no thorns and a maximum height of almost 5’. The rose blooms in autumn, spring and summer. The petals are crimson with darker hints and it boasts a fervent scent.

In the year 2000, Welsh museum curator Andrew Dixey was interested in growing the Bardou Job around his Museum of Welsh Life at St. Fagan’s Castle, which historically grew the rose. However, the rose no longer grew in Wales. Dixey wanted to reintroduce the rose to St. Fagans for the Wales Tourist Board’s Homecoming 2000 Campaign. He scoured the internet in search of living specimens of the rose and came across the historic rose cultivator’s nursery website. Today the rose once again grows in St. Fagan’s Castle gardens in Wales. What makes the whole affair unique is that Alcatraz National Park officials claim no record of the rose ever being on the island. The Bardou Job like many other plants has become a restored piece of island beauty in a place where beauty was once scarce.

Restoring the Alcatraz gardens

To make life easier for plants like the Bardou Job, the Gardens of Alcatraz Restoration Project was launched in 2003. Volunteers began a lengthy process of cataloging plants, defoliating overgrowth, and eventually replanting plants on Alcatraz Island.

This type of archeological gardening is about taking time to piece together an historical puzzle. The gardeners must log all artifacts they uncover, artifacts such as a 60 year old terrace, a recreation yard handball or Al Capone’s secret treasure.

The project has now become the thriving gardens you can see, touch, smell, and walk in today. It is a really treat to stand in the vividly colored terraces and watch the hummingbirds whiz by. Nowadays the volunteers lead guided tours around the various island gardens. Volunteer led tours happen twice a week, Friday and Sunday morning and leave after the second dock talk (9:30am).

The gardens of Alcatraz were not just used as a mental escape for those who kept them, they also acted as a web protecting the many things that lived on the island. The Bay Area has many shorelines that need protecting, many animal sanctuaries that can be restored and improved upon. The volunteer work done in these environments is truly a selfless act that can bear results.

We can each carry on the tradition of community based restoration to learn more about the natural world around us and help restore our local ecosystems. Click here to sign up for a restoration event with Save The Bay.