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The Roses of Alcatraz

Resident families introduced roses to Alcatraz during the military era, between 1850 and 1934. These early gardeners were undaunted by the island’s challenges—severe winds, and a lack of freshwater and topsoil. Surprisingly, roses thrived under these conditions and soon filled Alcatraz’s first gardens.

In 1934, when the federal Bureau of Prisons took over Alcatraz, it inherited a landscaped island from the army. Mr. Freddie Reichel, first secretary to Warden Johnston, recalled: “When I first arrived on the island, there were flowers all over the leeward side of the island, [including] a beautiful rose garden on one of the levels with a small greenhouse.”

When the maximum-security prison closed in 1963, the gardens were abandoned. A few decades later, a rosarian group, the Heritage Rose Group, visited the island in 1989. It inventoried the surviving roses and took cuttings for propagation. About 15 rose species had survived without care from the prison periods (click here for a full list of the island’s roses). One of the surviving roses was Rosa ‘Bardou Job’, a rose that originated in Wales, but could no longer be found growing there! After the rose was found on Alcatraz, the Museum of Welsh Life was thrilled to welcome it back to Wales (see article: Rose Escapes from Alcatraz).

Today, the Rose Terrace on the island’s east side is once again filled with roses, and has a newly built greenhouse where the original building once stood.