Stopping to Smell Flowers with Zoo Horticulture

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Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs, and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here!

The San Diego Zoo is a world-famous organization. Its impressive collection is one of the most diverse among the world’s zoos. Each year millions of visitors from around the globe come to the Zoo for a chance to see animals like the giant panda, California condor, and Queensland koala that make the Zoo so particularly unique. What is less well-known about the Zoo is that its plant collection is actually even larger than its animal one. The diverse horticulture (the science of plant cultivation) around the Zoo is one of the most remarkable dimensions of the Zoo experience.

This week, the InternQuest team had the opportunity to experience this aspect of the Zoo firsthand. Mike Letzring, the Zoo’s plant collections manager, lead us on a tour through Elephant Odyssey with not elephants but plants as our sole focus. Having walked around Elephant Odyssey many times since it opened in 2009, I was surprised at all of the new things I discovered throughout the day.

Mr. Letzring is an ideal guide—with 31 years of experience in horticulture, his knowledge is extensive, and his passion is clear. He describes himself as “sort of a fanatic with plants,” and tells us, “I wanted to know everything [about plants] I possibly could.” From our point of view, it really seems like he’s been successful. As we walk through Elephant Odyssey, he points out everything from the extremely drought-tolerant Texas “zig-zag tree” to the African “sausage tree” that relies on bats for pollination, providing detailed presentations on both species.

Elephant Odyssey features elephants, jaguars, lions, camels, pronghorn, and countless other animals to compare them to their prehistoric counterparts that once lived in Southern California. So what’s the point behind the extensive plant collection, featuring species from all over the world? I ask Mr. Letzring what he wants guests to take away from the vegetation element of Elephant Odyssey. He tells us, “I want to show everyone the uniqueness of plants and where they come from… I want to broaden everybody’s education of what’s out there so they take care of it.” In this way, Elephant Odyssey can expose the everyday individual to some plant life they would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. The Zoo is, quite literally, a plant museum. Each year it goes through an extensive effort to catalog its collection to gain official accreditation through the AAM, the American Association of Museums. As Mr. Letzring said, the idea behind showcasing the world’s foliage to Zoo guests—globe-trotters and average citizens alike—is to increase appreciation for plant diversity.

The truth is, many plants need this support from regular people like us, because many of the plants we see are as rare as they are beautiful. Take the flowering Erythrina trees, for example. Our intern team comes across one of these so-called “coral trees,” and Mr. Letzring informs us that 30 to 40 species of Erythrina are on the “Red List,” which means they are in danger of becoming extinct. Mr. Letzring himself has been to Hawaii to help with the coral tree conservation effort during a collaboration project between San Diego Zoo Global and several botanical gardens in Hawaii. Clearly, the plants’ own displays at the Zoo aren’t simply there to create an eye-pleasing environment—they are there to give everybody a rare look at conservation in action.

The plants of Elephant Odyssey are many things: some are rare, some are common; some are old and some are new; some are native and some are exotic. One thing nearly all of them are is drought-tolerant. A primary goal of creating Elephant Odyssey was to build a section of the Zoo that demonstrated exemplary water-conservation through its selection of greenery. The best part is, there’s a lot we can apply to our own backyard. Aloe, for example, is a plant exhibited all throughout Elephant Odyssey (we even find a section specifically devoted to aloes from across the world). For Southern California gardeners, this plant is a great option. It flowers November through March and is a hummingbird favorite. Overall, Elephant Odyssey is a great source of inspiration for beautiful, drought-tolerant landscaping.

When it comes to plant diversity, as Mr. Letzring puts it, “inside the Zoo… the sky could be the limit.” So next time you visit the Zoo, or even simply go outside, appreciate the plant diversity that surrounds you, and stop to smell the flowers.

Sierra, Real World Team
Week Two, Winter 2012