As we pulled away from Pier 33, sailboats leaned with the wind, slicing the fog. The city rose behind us. Gulls cried.
Ahead, the former federal pen loomed forbidding and drab, luring visitors toward the rocks, sirenlike in its perverse appeal.
But then we disembarked and met Monica Beary. Sporting a head bopper with bouncing flowers, she stood ready to soften the hard edges of the sandstone citadel. Beary is a volunteer docent for the Gardens of Alcatraz, and hers is one of several tours and talks on offer. The storied setting — an 1850s-era military installation turned maximum-security lockup — is now a National Historic Landmark and part of the expansive Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Before we gaze upon Mrs. Langtry and other such Alcatraz plants with names, Beary displays the earliest known photograph of the Rock. The 1853 image depicts a bare ocean outcrop. In the late 1800s, soil was brought in from nearby Angel Island to support cannons. Military families stationed there used the soil to plant flowers. Soon, Alcatraz began to sprout like a Chia Pet.
By the time the Federal Bureau of Prisons assumed control in 1933, much of the 22-acre island was landscaped. Freddie Reichel, secretary to the warden at the time, arrived and observed, "There were flowers all over the leeward side of the island, [including] a beautiful rose garden."
Reichel got permission for convicts to cultivate the beds. Among those felons was prisoner No. 578AZ, Elliott Michener, who had gained trust when he turned in a set of keys he'd found. A counterfeiter, Michener's talent with greenbacks led to a green thumb, and nine years' access to fresh air.
"He knew nothing about gardening," Beary told visitors. "He read backs of seed packets and read books. He convinced the prison to collect gray water [bathwater] and also incinerator ash and kitchen scraps for compost. He and other prisoners built terraces from rubble rock."
Michener's devotion drew the respect and friendship of Warden Edwin B. Swope and his wife, Edna, a sociable flower enthusiast, who is pictured in one archival photo standing beside the garden in a flowered dress and high heels. It also earned him a sense of normalcy. Michener became a houseboy of sorts for the Swopes and built them a greenhouse. He and Edna Swope shared a mutual affection for horse racing. On the sly, she placed bets for him based on the newspaper racing results.
When Michener was transferred from Alcatraz, he mourned the plants and wrote to the warden, "I believe that my best and only practical course is to get back to Alcatraz [from Leavenworth prison]. At Alcatraz, I could at least grow Bell roses and delphiniums seven days a week and enjoy considerable freedom and trust, and in general make the best of things."
After prison, Michener rejoined his friend and fellow inmate gardener Dick Franseen in Wisconsin. Both worked in horticulture. In a 1952 letter, Michener wrote again to Swope: "Dick and I are getting along well and for the first time I'm learning how much better one can do living honestly than by, say, counterfeiting!" he wrote. "And we have a favor to ask: Will you send us a bush of our old [Gardenia] rose?"
That pale-yellow rose still blooms behind the remains of the warden's house.
Thirteen years after Michener left Alcatraz, the prison was shuttered. The beds became overgrown and birds established nesting colonies there. Plants, including nine rose bushes, did their own hard time, surviving austere conditions and neglect.
In 2003, the Garden Conservancy, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and the National Park Service combined efforts to restore the gardens. More work remains, says Shelagh Fritz, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy's project manager for Alcatraz. As they have toiled, park staffers and volunteers have unearthed evidence of inmate life — including 100 fugitive handballs, escapees from the prison's rec yard.
The restoration involved labor-intensive sleuthing to determine what remained beneath thickets of wild blackberries and other invasives. After inventorying their finds — such as the cape tulip that appeared when brambles were cleared — they used photographs to guide careful relandscaping.
New plant varieties suited to the island's Mediterranean climate were introduced. Fritz says that visitors, especially from the Bay Area, can glean ideas for plants that are tolerant of wind and drought. They also may spot residents that inhabit the island voluntarily, including eight types of bees, plus hummingbirds, monarch butterflies, pelicans and oystercatchers.
"The gardens were restored and planted with non-thirsty varieties," Beary said. "There's no rain between May and October, and it never goes below freezing." (May is peak flower time, but blossoms begin with daffodils in March; various blooms continue through September.)
Along one path, Beary pointed out the white-margined nightshade. "It has thorned leaves, as if the plant is trying to defend itself," she said. "It's prickly. You have to be tough to live here."
To foster plant survival, volunteers and staffers have developed award-winning compost and added a gravity-fed system for rainwater.
On Alcatraz' west side, in the inmate garden, cormorants, snowy egrets and Western gulls now nest. But prisoner-planted trees — fig, apple, black walnut and New Zealand Christmas — along with globe artichokes still grow beneath a decaying gun tower where a guard once kept watch.
The setting is quiet, save for the mournful bell of a buoy in the bay, and you wonder what the inmates pondered as they toiled within view of mainland freedom just over a mile away.
That western hillside, Michener wrote, "provided a refuge from the disturbances of the prison, the work a release, and it became an obsession. This one thing I would do well."
Before prison, from a young age, Michener led a hardscrabble life of wandering. It's as if, at Alcatraz, like the tiny airborne seeds of Jupiter's beard valerian that land and bloom profusely — almost impossibly — from crevasses in the island's stone, he finally established roots.
In 1989, before the garden's restoration, Michener returned to Alcatraz. In a recorded interview, he said he pitied the men who worked in the prison laundry "because that was pure drudgery."
Years later, the emotional effects of being on the inside, even for a little while, are evident on the faces of tourists who have taken the indoor tour among the cells and bars.
While walking the tended grounds, Beary acknowledged that contrast. "A wonderful example of what gardening can do to restore the soul," she called it.
Powers is a writer based in Detroit. Her website is rebeccapowers.com.
More from Travel:
If you go
Where to stay
495 Jefferson St.
Among hotels within walking distance of Pier 33 is the Argonaut, near Pier 39. The boutique hotel in the former Haslett Warehouse has a nautical decor. The San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park visitor center may be entered from the hotel lobby. Room rates begin at about $389 a night.
Where to eat
1 Ferry Building
The landmark building, at the foot of Market Street, is within walking distance of the Alcatraz Cruises ferry dock. Its clock tower makes it easily recognizable to visitors. Since its restoration in 2003, the 1898 building has been a bustling marketplace and transportation hub. It now is an emporium of stands offering pastries, coffee, cheeses, juices and chocolate. There also are sit-down restaurants and shops selling many artisanal products. Among the dine-in spots is Hog Island Oyster Company (415-391-7117, hogislandoysters.com), which is popular, in part, for its water view. Small plates there average $14. A bowl of rich clam chowder costs $14. The signature Hog Island Sweetwater oysters, raw and shucked to order, are sold individually or on plates of six ($18), 12 ($33) or 24 ($62).
What to do
Access via Pier 33, the Embarcadero
This infamous island, a former military installation and federal penitentiary, lies in San Francisco Bay, just over a mile from the mainland. Alcatraz Island is open all year except on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. In addition to the gardens, available tours include the Alcatraz Cellhouse Audio Tour, which offers recordings in a variety of languages. The island is reached via a 15-to-20-minute ride on the Alcatraz Cruises ferry. Round-trip ferry tickets for the early bird tours and day tour for adults cost $37.25; $23 for children ages 5 to 11; free for younger children. It's recommended to purchase ferry tickets several weeks in advance. Departures begin at 8:45 a.m. daily