Rare Rose Rediscovered on Alcatraz 30 Years Ago Teaches Resilience Today

2 min
The Bardou Job, a rare cultivated rose variety, was thought to be extinct for decades before it was rediscovered on Alcatraz. (Shelagh Fritz/Parks Conservancy)

Even on the brightest of blue sky days, Alcatraz Island looks ominous, gray and imposing. The crumbling former federal penitentiary is the last place on Earth you’d expect a gorgeous flower to flourish.

But while many of The Rock's indoor spaces — notably the infamous cellblock — are off-limits to visitors right now owing to COVID-19-related health and safety restrictions, its craggy outdoor landscape is full of unexpected finds.

Among them is a rare and tenacious rose. It's blooming right now in the Rose Garden, a lesser-known corner of the island that visitors can for the first time explore freely, instead of only on a docent-led tour. And this rose has a remarkable story.

The Bardou Job has big, bright red petals. It's a cultivated variety (or "cultivar") that originated in France in the 1880s.

"We don't really know who brought it here," said Shelagh Fritz, Alcatraz Gardens program manager.

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A likely candidate could be James Johnston, the first and longest-serving warden of Alcatraz. By all accounts, the man had a thing for roses.

Johnston grew the flowers by his house in the 1930s and 40s. By then, Alcatraz had a long tradition of gardening; according to the National Park Service, the first records of a formal garden on Alcatraz are images of a Victorian garden taken in 1870, and by 1881, gardening had become an important aspect of daily life for officer’s families and inmates.

But Fritz said the gardens fell into disrepair and the roses withered and died off after the prison closed down in 1963.

"The Bardou Job was considered extinct at the time," Fritz said.

It wasn't until 1990, when a group of Bay Area heritage rose enthusiasts came to Alcatraz in search of rare species, that the long-lost flower was spotted peeping through a thicket of blackberries near the derelict warden's house.

The Bardou Job rose was rediscovered by a group of Bay Area heritage rose experts while exploring Alcatraz in 1990. (Alison Taggart-Barone / Parks Conservancy)

At first, rose expert Gregg Lowery didn't know if he'd stumbled upon anything special.

"For all intents and purposes, it looked like a common hybrid tea rose," said Lowery, who curates a historic rose collection, The Friends of Vintage Roses, in Sebastopol. "But it turned out to be something much more exotic."

After careful analysis, Lowery and his team identified the rose as the long-lost Bardou Job.

"It survived 40 years of neglect with no one caring for it," Fritz said. "Roses are actually a lot hardier than people give them credit for."

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in the United Kingdom, curators at the St. Fagans National Museum of History in Wales (then called the Museum of Welsh Life at St Fagans) were searching high and low for the Bardou Job.

The rose had once flourished on the museum grounds. After a more than hundred-year absence, they wanted to bring it back.

Lowery said an early website — Help Me Find Roses — helped the museum track the flower down.

"It was essentially a cross-referenced encyclopedia of roses with input from the public and with listings of nurseries and so forth," Lowery said. "They were able to find us through that."

So Lowery sent a clipping of the Bardou Job to Wales. (While it is illegal to remove any plants, flowers, or other landscape artifacts from a National Park, there are special collection permits that the National Park Service grants on occasion.)

Since then, he said, the rose has been sighted in many places across the globe. Lowery mentioned another rose, the Black Boy, which is closely related to the Bardou Job and can sometimes be mistaken for it.

Regardless, the return of the rose to the museum, if this BBC article from 2000 is anything to go by, has been a point of pride for the Welsh.

"I can confirm that the Bardou Job rose is still at the National Museum of History," said Janet Wilding, head of the historic buildings unit at the National Museum Wales, of which the history museum is a part, in an email to KQED. "It is in the rosery and is still going strong."

To find out more about the many different species of flower growing on Alcatraz, click here.

To find out more about visiting Alcatraz, click here.