The Gardens of Alcatraz Florilegium

The Northern California Society of Botanical Artists is delighted to have collaborated with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and the Garden Conservancy to create a florilegium, a series of botanical paintings, documenting the plants of The Gardens of Alcatraz.

The final selection of all 127 paintings and drawings chosen for the Gardens of Alcatraz Florilegium is now available for online viewing! Please click the button to visit the Florilegium Gallery!

The Gardens

Tourists visiting San Francisco often put Alcatraz on their “must see” list. Most visitors know of its history as ‘The Rock’, a maximum-security federal prison, home to Al Capone and the Birdman of Alcatraz. But how many are aware of the Gardens of Alcatraz?

The story begins in the 1850’s when a fort was built on “Isla de los Alcatraces” (Island of the Pelicans), a rugged rock covered with a thin dusting of soil, a few native grasses and a large number of sea birds. Soon the government had realized that it was a great location for a secure military prison. To make things a bit more “homey” for the families stationed there, they began importing soil and plants, creating Victorian-style gardens near the citadel on the summit. The Gardens of Alcatraz were born!

Development and expansion of the gardens continued following the conversion of the facility to a maximum security federal prison in the 1930’s. Privileged inmates were allowed to work in the gardens and western horticultural experts recommended plants that might do well in the harsh environment. But in 1963 the prison era ended and the gardens were left to fend for themselves for the next 40 years.

Looking NorthThe environment is hostile: the island is often whipped by strong salt-laden winds and has no water other than winter rain and summer fog. Plants unable to survive without maintenance and irrigation soon vanished but others spread wild across the island.

Alc shelagh16Finally, in 2003, the Garden Conservancy and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy formed a partnership with the National Park Service and set to work to restore the gardens. Volunteers removed the overgrowth, recovered “survivor” plants hidden beneath the tangled mess, and worked to restore and enhance what remained of the historic gardens.

Today the Gardens of Alcatraz are once again colorful, alive with fragrant old roses, fig trees, bulbs, and huge succulents.

The Florilegium Project

Collecting Rosa 'Bardou Job'Work on the florilegium paintings begins with the artists visiting the island under the guidance of the Garden Conservancy volunteers. The volunteers introduce the plants in the various parts of the island and each artist may select a plant to depict. The artist may take photographs of their chosen plant, do sketches, or may collect a small sample of the plant to take home to their studio. Working from the information they collected, the artist then works to create an accurate botanical portrait of the specimen. Some artists even make multiple visits to the island to collect additional samples and photos.

The final selection of images has now been made and a catalog of all of all 127 images will be published soon. In addition, the collection will continue to be exhibited in a number of venues.

Please be sure to view the Florilegium Gallery to see the full selection of images. And do check back regularly to follow the progress as this important effort nears completion!

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Photos from the Gardens of Alcatraz website and by George Koerner and various members of NCalSBA