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The rocky shores of Alcatraz bloom once again

Alcatraz is a forbidding landscape, but its rocky gardens – once tended by prisoners and families of the guards – are being restored, and bloom once again.

By Michelle LockeThe Associated Press / April 26, 2010

Shelagh Fritz, right, project manager of the Alcatraz Historic Gardens Project, and Dawn Stranne of the Gardens Conservancy, look over plants and flowers in a restored garden on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco.

Eric Risberg/AP

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SAN FRANCISCO

Scoured by wind and steeped in criminal history, Alcatraz has a forbidding face. But look a little closer and you see a gentler side to this old fortress, the gleam of flowers blooming brightly on the island's rocky slopes.

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These are the gardens of Alcatraz, once tended by prisoners and the families of the guards who watched them, now being revived by a band of conservationist sleuths who rely on old photos and long memories to re-create an almost forgotten piece of horticultural history.

"It really is a jigsaw puzzle — it takes some detective work," says Shelagh Fritz, project manager of the Gardens of Alcatraz. "Our goal is to turn a place of neglect and harshness into something that's beautiful and worth taking care of."

Memories of what it was like

Kathe Poteet remembers how the gardens used to look. Her father, Al Kaeppel, was business administrator on the island in the 1950s, and she lived on the island until she was 7.

"It was a great place to grow up," says Ms. Poteet, now a teacher in central California. She remembers playing on the parade grounds, picking berries in the fall, and chewing on sour grass, the tasty weed known as oxalis.

A ground cover plant known as Persian carpet covered the slopes near her house, making a display that could be seen from the boat when traveling back from trips to the mainland. "When that was in bloom, the whole island just would look pink as you were coming home."

Originally a bald lump of an island — they don't call it The Rock for nothing — Alcatraz became an Army fortress in the 1800s and a military prison in 1861. From 1934 to 1963, it was the federal penitentiary commemorated in a slew of Hollywood films such as "Birdman of Alcatraz" and "Escape from Alcatraz."

In the early 1900s, military and civic projects brought trees, shrubs, and seeds to the island. The movement got a boost in the '30s when Freddie Reichel, secretary to the warden, persuaded the prison leader to allow inmates to garden, a privilege granted only to the best-behaved.

It was uphill work. "I kept no records of my failures, for I had many," Mr. Reichel wrote in a letter chronicling his efforts.

It doesn't appear that the island's most infamous resident, mobster Al Capone, showed any flower power. But in the '40s, prisoner Elliott Michener left his mark, working in the gardens on the island's West Side where he laid out flower beds and put together a tool shed from odds and ends. The shed, recently refurbished by National Park Service carpenters and volunteers, still stands.

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