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September 20, 2016
Editor's Note: At the Saint Louis Zoo, it's not just the animals that set the scene—subtract the flora and the Zoo would be much less inviting. In fact, surveys show that visitors to the Saint Louis Zoo rate zoo grounds and plants at the very top of all factors influencing their satisfaction. The horticulture staff includes three full-time, seven part-time, four seasonal employees and one truly dedicated volunteer. Saint Louis Zoo horticulture staff members must have a deep knowledge of gardening, plant varieties, identification and selection, grounds maintenance, interpretive design, botany, pest control, plant-animal interactions and plant toxicity—to name only a few of their skills. In this blog post, 30-year veteran Horticulturalist Tony Range shares his team's secrets for keeping the Zoo beautiful.
By Tony Range
Zoo landscape design is more than gardening—we tell stories with the landscapes. On a daily basis, we work with thousands of trees and plants across 98 acres – creating 52 hanging baskets, filling 224 containers and planting 28 flower beds.
When I first started working at the Zoo 30 years ago, all the gardens were very formal as they still are in some historic areas of the Zoo. However, in 1999, with the first of the immersion exhibits at River's Edge, we needed to tell the stories of the animals' home territories of Africa, Asia and South and North America. We worked to establish trees and plants around rocks, waterfalls, and other elements that best represented the savannas of Africa or the tropical world of South America.
Then in the native Missouri area of Cypress Swamp, the horticulture team planted only native species. Around the Charles H. Hoessle Herpetarium, we planted a succulent garden to match the environment where snakes would live. As the Zoo has added nearly a dozen new exhibits in recent years, we have worked closely with the architects and exhibit designers to match the plants with the natural habitats of the animals they house.
We also began to think about the use of color to set the mood for visitors. If we want to create a mood of calmness and serenity, we use a palate of pinks and purples, or during certain seasons, we decorate with reds and silvers to promote a feeling of energy and vibrancy.
One rule we always follow is that we make Zoo entrances "pop" to entice visitors to enter the Zoo. That's why we decorate Keiner Plaza; even though it's no longer an entrance, it is still one of the cornerstones of the Zoo.
One of my favorite activities is working with the specialty gardens—for example, the pollinator, browse and enrichment gardens. Nearly all of the animals benefit from the Zoo's Enrichment Garden--whether they are treated to basil, lemongrass, cilantro or sumac. While the plants that are in this garden represent only a small portion of what animals eat, they give the animals enjoyment, providing something to snack on, play with or smell. We work closely with the Animal Division professionals to grow plants in this garden near the Orthwein Animal Nutrition Center—all to encourage natural behaviors. For example keepers put herbs in papier-mâché packages animals can rip up. The big cats enjoy sniffing herbs and essential oils that keepers rub over logs.
This year we grew flowering plants that offer edible flowers for the primates—all, of course, approved by our veterinary and nutrition staffs. A study showed that lemurs preferred sumac so we ripped out invasive honeysuckle and replanted with sumac. As the weather turns cold, keepers harvest the garden and freeze the herbs for use in the winter.
In the Horticulture Department, we also have to be problem solvers. We began training keepers to be gardeners so they could help us harvest browse—plant material used for animal enrichment and to supplement animal diets. Browse consists of leaves, flowers, and woody portions of trees and shrubs from specific species. Many animals, such as our giraffes, bongos, okapi, elephant, black rhino, primates, and birds, enjoy nibbling on leaves, stripping bark and chewing on stems like those they would consume in the wild.
Nutrition and Animal Division staffs have taught us that browse is important (there’s a browse specific list we follow). Browse can help animals develop good habits for their teeth and better overall body conditions. It also facilitates natural feeding behaviors and can encourage enrichment and play. However, I must admit it is sometimes a toss-up which is the greater challenge: maintaining the grounds when thousands of visitors show up daily or sustaining exhibits where animals use the landscape as dinner.
Another issue is pest management. Insects damage plants so we work to treat the plants with organic solutions, or we introduce natural predator insects that don't hurt the plants but do go after the harmful insects. We also hand pick insects off the plants. And yes,rabbits, raccoons and ground hogs all drive us nuts—we've tried fox urine, thorny plant material and sprinkling the hair of big cats around plantings trees to discourage them.
Over the years, landscapes have become vital to the Zoo's mission of conservation education. It is very important now to create a wild terrain to bring people closer to nature. We are proud to be part of that—part of enriching the experience of the public every day they visit our Zoo.