From Rain Forest to Your Backyard?

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Zoo InternQuest is a career exploration program for high school students. For more information see the Zoo InternQuest blogs. For more photos see the Zoo InternQuest Photo Journal.

“When it comes to plants,” announced Collections Manager Mike Letzring, “I consider myself a bit of a purist.”

While this comment was referring to his hesitation about celebrating a hybrid hibiscus of an untraditional green color, it’s clear that it also reflects his work at the San Diego Zoo as a passionate horticulturist. The array of plant species housed at the Zoo, both common and endangered, can be traced back to locations all over the world, and yet all find themselves sunning in the same paradise we call San Diego. It has actually been determined that the Zoo’s vast collection of plants is valued more highly than its collection of animals, and the fact that this comes as such a huge surprise to those listening shows an under appreciation for a very important and beautiful art form that is overlooked even when it takes up a majority of the park. The work of a horticulturist is intensive, takes years of experience, lots of research and patience, and an acceptance of dirty fingernails. However, overall, all that is needed is a trace of pure passion for taking care of plants, a quality that was evident in Mr. Letzring’s knowledgeable tour of Reptile Mesa.

InternQuest walked past several trees, bushes, cacti, and flowers, and listened to the amazing amounts of crystallized intelligence that emitted from Letzring’s mouth as he discussed each individual species. We heard about the red blossoms of the Silk Floss tree whose pods emit a cotton material used for stuffing pillows, and the red cherries of the Grumichama of Paraguay (I’m planning on visiting the Zoo mid-summer in order to try them when they’ve ripened). Each plant has a story that makes it relevant to the unknowing guests that walk right past, whether they are prime producers of helpful remedies or interestingly unique candidates for a home garden.

Though Mr. Letzring recognized himself as a plant purist, and I agree up to the point that he has a deep curiosity for plants, he doesn’t limit himself to native plants. Instead he likes to dabble. Tropical plants, desert plants, and more all have homes at the Zoo, each serving to compose the several different ‘biomes’ within the gates. This unnatural state may confuse those who are concerned with conservation issues. Doesn’t introducing these plants disrupt the native ecosystem? You may have heard of invasive species of foreign areas overtaking landscapes, like the Japanese kudzu has in the South, but Mr. Letzring calmed any worries of such drastic happenings due to his work at the Zoo. With thirty years of landscaping experience under his belt, he has come to the conclusion that working with non-native plants should be welcomed as it adds diversity and beauty to a front lawn. As for those of you who want to experiment at home, he warns that one should always know the plant before it is added. Just like in his daily work of researching the assorted plants he acquires and their needs in order to grow successfully or precautions such as toxicity, when working with a home garden or backyard you want to know how you can prevent any possibility of harm.

At the end of our tour, I decided to ask him for tips on my own journey as a gardener, or that of other beginners. Where do I start? How do I get to be like the famous Mike Letzring? And then he responded with great words of wisdom: “Of course, I had to study from book after book when I went to school, but now you have this great thing called the Internet.” As you are already reading this blog, that may not be news to you, but it is a reminder that information on the entire known plant world is so close at hand.

Iris, Real World Team