Hear the name “Alcatraz” and one most often thinks of criminals swimming across the San Francisco Bay to potential freedom after a horrid extended stay in one of the country’s most notorious prisons. While obviously the prison has long been closed and the island is now a national park and tourist destination, what many still don’t realize is that the island is positively brimming with plants and gardens.
When the prison was still functioning, both prisoners and workers alike tended to gardens around the island. Some of these gardens have been restored, while others have been allowed to become wild again. Yet, rather than try and restore the island back to what it had been pre-settler, the Park Service is allowing these plants to do what they want to do – creeping over crumbling walls, populating rugged hillsides, and in general fixing a toehold on an island of tough conditions and no source of fresh water. At this point, the plants are as much a part of the cultural history of the island as the buildings themselves and the waves of people and animals that have inhabited it.
To find out more about how you can go on a docent-led tour of the gardens and wild spaces of Alcatraz, click here.
Trees say much about who we are as a culture – especially about what we want to be. In Northern California, redwoods are planted everywhere (including in places they dislike – such as in hot and dry roadsides). And they are planted to signify all the things that Northern California has long aspired so be – woodsy, a little rustic but still important, and decidedly not Southern California. Meanwhile in Southern California, the ubiquitous Mexican Fan Palm is almost synonymous with Los Angeles itself, spindly spires emanating tropical vibes above a low-slung landscape whose climate is, at its core, decidedly not tropical.
There has indeed always been an element of escape and fantasy to gardens and landscapes. They are idealized images of nature, and their makers oftentimes want their landscapes to offer us a respite from the modern world. It is little wonder then that all-native-plant gardens are a tough sell to many folks, as, well, they remind you of where you are, and perhaps you don’t always want to be where you are – a truism that has been seen throughout history in the trees we have chosen to populate our cities.
Case in point: California and the palm, the redwood, the eucalyptus, and citrus trees. These trees have come to signify “California” in the public imagination, and that is what Jared Farmer writes about in his book, Trees in Paradise. The prose is spritely and far from dry and the content is chock-full of tidbits of information you didn’t know. And once you’ve read it, you’ll never see California in the same way.
If you’re ever feeling like humans have a leg up on absolutely everything, watch this and you might end up rethinking your worldview. What if we had to build our own homes, all by ourselves? And with objects foraged in the wild? Most of us probably wouldn’t even know where to begin.
What is so fascinating about this documentary on Southern California’s Descanso Gardens is that it really traces the evolution of our understanding as a culture of nature, ecology, and gardening. And this evolution can be seen through what the Gardens have prioritized and modified over the years – such as moving water-loving camelias (the early cornerstone of the Gardens) away from the live oaks (which hate summer water), and an increasing focus on water conservation and habitat landscaping. The documentary even weaves in the ugly history of Japanese internment, its connection to the Gardens, and how that story, once buried, is now told very openly.
We spotted this plant back in May, appearing seemingly out of thin air and looking surprisingly un-weedy for being a volunteer. Since then, it has grown without irrigation for months, and has stayed remarkably green too, not once showing signs of drought stress. The thing is, we have no idea what this plant is. We are waiting for it to bloom to have a better clue of what it might be. In the meantime, we’ll marvel at its toughness and its ability to plant itself in horrendously compacted soil and thrive all summer long on basically zero water.
Once again, plants growing and thriving irrigation-free are all around us. We just have to open our eyes and look.