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A HISTORY of the Association of Zoological Horticulture

November 17, 2019 10:44 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)


Original printing in 1988

by Chuck Rogers Curator of Horticulture (Retired)

Zoological Society of Philadelphia

"What's a nice horticulturist like you doing in a zoo?" might be a subtitle for this paper about zoos and zoo horticulture.  For many years, the zoo gardener was thought of as a person who cut grass, trimmed hedges, and pulled weeds whether employed by the zoo or the Public Parks Department. Their role was only cosmetic to make the appearance of the zoo acceptable.

As zoos shifted their approach from barred, bare cages to exhibits and natural living habitats, the need for more landscape design, especially within habitats, changed the role of the gardener from merely maintenance to an active participant in the exhibit and natural habitat process.  Where were the resources for this new horticultural direction? Few, if any, books or articles were available in the 1960's and 1970's. Rarely was zoo horticulture a topic at zoo conferences and no network of professional zoo gardeners was in place. Some form of communication between zoo gardeners and horticulturists was needed to exchange success in the use of plant material in habitats; to compare what plants do well in tropical habitats; and to discuss toxic plants. The only communication between zoo horticulturists was developed among several friends over the years. The big question among zoos and zoo horticulturists was where to get information and from whom.

Recognizing the need, the Philadelphia Zoo organized and sponsored a conference to be held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in August 1980 to address the growing importance of horticulture in zoos. The title chosen was the 1st International Conference for Zoo Horticulture and the intended purpose was as follows:  The purpose of the Conference for Zoo Horticulture is to explore ways that a more enlightened approach can be planned to promote the necessary partnership of horticulture and zoology. The exchange of ideas, experiences, and knowledge in a gathering of persons of like training and interest is one of the most effective ways to communicate these ideas.

The conference was convened with 30 full-time delegates and 15 part-time delegates. Participants came from 18 American zoos, Kuwait, and Nigeria; truly an international conference from the beginning. Paper sessions included topics on grasses and bamboo, native American plants, tropical plants, plants for animal habitats, browse programs, and a most enlightening one on plant toxicity. Field trips to rare botanical institutions included the Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania, Henry Foundation, and Longwood Gardens; introducing delegates to new plants and new ideas for landscape design. The conference was a great success with many lasting friendships developed through the experience and knowledge gained during the conference.

The conference would not have been as successful without the support of Ernie Chew of San Diego Zoo, Steve Wachter of Minnesota State Zoo, Brookfield Zoo, and others. Thursday evening's session was listed on the program as, "Wrap-Up Session Where Does Zoo Horticulture Go From Here?" Results of that evening session was the formation of the Association of Zoological Horticulture, an organization dedicated to the promotion of horticulture as an integral part of zoo design; to support and promote the conservation of endangered species as well as endangered habitats; to hold an international conference annually for the sharing of new ideas and information about plants and their role in zoos; to publish a newsletter; and to promote zoo horticulture as a profession.

Selected to form an organizing committee responsible for the direction and management of the Association until the next conference when the first election of officers would be held and the bylaws enacted were Chuck Rogers, Philadelphia Zoo conference host; Craig Carpenter, North Carolina State Zoo; and Steve Wachter, Minnesota State Zoo.

In the ensuing ten years since the Philadelphia Conference, the Association has prospered holding annual conferences in the United States, Canada, and England.  Individual membership has grown to more than ZOO members from 10 countries; institutional and professional membership categories have been included; summer internships have been sponsored; conference proceedings, research studies, and surveys have been published; a seeds and source exchange program has been very popular; and a newsletter is published regularly.

Perhaps the most important and lasting results of the AZH is the lasting personal contacts. Networking is the phrase that best sums it up. A network of friends of like training and interests. A friend you can call for a new plant material or seed sources, for advice on which plants and under what conditions they have grown in an animal exhibit, or what techniques are used to protect trees from the claws of lions and tigers or the chewing of hoofed stock. A network is a place where you can talk out your frustrations, complain, celebrate, or just relax knowing you have others who know and understand your problems.

Mark Fleming, past treasurer and president of AZH, said in his closing remarks at the Tucson conference, "I am tired from a busy season, worn out from the drought, weary of the problems associated .with zoo horticulture, just sort of down. Then comes the AZH conference. A time and place for learning, sharing information, and relaxing with friends. Why do I come? I come to get pumped up, to renew my enthusiasm, and to get ready for the next year."  What better testimonial can an organization have? AZH is a network, a group of friends, a source of information and encouragement, and a group dedicated to conserving endangered species and habitats.  

After many years of practicing horticulture as a profession, I can safely say, "A nice horticulturist like you does belong in a zoo." May I end by paraphrasing a favorite poem (with proper apologies to Joyce Kilmer, of course).


Of all the things that I might be,

I had to be a lousy tree.

A tree that grows out in the yard

With little lions 'round my feet.

I lift my leafy arms to pray,

Go 'way little lions, go 'way.

Nest of birds I must wear

And what they do gets in my hair.

I'm nothing else but this, alas,

A comfort station in the grass.

Of all the things that I might be

I had to be a damned zoo tree.

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