Elephant Odyssey through Horticulturist Eyes

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Golden barrel cactus

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!

Today at the San Diego Zoo we met with horticulture expert Mike Letzring, who took us on a tour through Elephant Odyssey. Mr. Letzring, who is the collections manager, pointed out the diverse collection of plant life found in Elephant Odyssey. He shared his perspective on plants, which goes much deeper than looking at a plant’s surface. He sees a rare and unique live organism that has a super capability to survive with little to no water!

Mr. Letzring shared with us how he and his team of landscapers are not only in charge of the plants outside of the exhibits but also for the plants that go inside. In this rattlesnake exhibit at Elephant Odyssey, the Horticulture Department chose plants that are native to San Diego because they are relatively drought tolerant like the plants rattlesnakes are used to being around in their natural home, the desert.

In Elephant Odyssey, we stopped at a very interesting tree. This tree is sometimes referred to as an “upside-down tree” because its branches look like a root system. Mr. Letzring, explained to us that this tree is very rare and indigenous to Madagascar. Make sure the next time you are in Elephant Odyssey, you take a moment to look at this amazing tree!

This brilliant orange and yellow flower is indigenous to San Diego. Mr. Letzring tells us that this unique-looking flower is called “the monkey flower” because its petals resemble the shape of a monkey’s face. Can you see it?

Along this particular walkway in Elephant Odyssey, do you notice a theme among the plants? When designing this area, Mr. Letzring and his team wanted to go with a theme that included plants with spines (thorns). The plants were received from a generous donor, a local San Diegan!

One of the plants we stop to look at was the African Erythrina latissima. This plant’s biggest threat is the gall wasp. Mr. Letzring showed us how the gall wasp penetrates the plant, which ultimately destroys it.

One of the last plants we came across on our tour was the golden barrel cactus. To our surprise, it’s actually possible to pull out the flower of the cactus to reveal a good source of moisture inside it. We learned that this cactus is very valuable to animals that come across it in the hot desert.


At the end of the tour, the interns had the rare opportunity to sample these delicious exotic fruits! What a treat to sample dragonfruit! It is clear that Mr. Letzring and his team work hard to spice up the Zoo with a variety of plants to not only diversify the landscape but for us to learn about the amazing world of horticulture.


Kayla, Photo Team
Week Two, Winter Session 2012