What comes to mind when you think about zoos? Well animals, of course! But just imagine a zoo without plants... Animal exhibits lacking the natural effect that plants provide. Few places for animals to interact, and visitor areas without plant displays and shady spaces to retreat to. What is "zoo horticulture"? A simple description might be "gardening and landscaping activities which occur in a zoo or aquarium setting." But there is so much more!
Zoo horticulture encompasses activities that range from exhibit/landscape design, development, and installation, to managing plant material within exhibits and visitor areas; from providing plant material for animal "diets" and "enrichment" (things that "enrich" the lives of zoo animals), to assisting zookeepers in identifying potentially toxic plants; from establishing interesting plant collections to promoting the awareness of plants and plant conservation. Zoo horticulture is so much more than just gardening and landscaping!
Animal exhibit and landscape development:
Most modern zoo exhibits incorporate the idea of placing animal species within the context of a "natural" environment as much as is possible. Plant materials, both living and non-living (such as logs, roots, and limbs), are vital to creating this natural environment. The zoo horticulturist is an important part of the planning and design process, and installation of new zoo exhibits. The zoo horticulturist interacts with architects, animal curators, administrative staff, construction companies, landscape contractors, nurserymen, and others in all stages of exhibit development. As an adviser to the project, the zoo horticulturist recommends suitable plant materials and offers strategies to ensure critical plant requirements are met for the successful growth and development of plants used in the project.
Managing landscapes within exhibits and visitor areas:
The zoo environment is a "rigorous" environment for plants to say the least! The zoo horticulturist is challenged with the task of keeping exhibits looking natural and "fresh"—not an easy task when one considers the "abuse" which plants incur. Whether it's soil compaction from hoof stock such as zebras, giraffes, etc. or defoliation from herbivores, plants are damaged or have difficult growing conditions to contend with, and it's the zoo horticulturist's job to meet the challenge!
Development of browse and plants for animal enrichment:
The zoo horticulturist is called on to assist curators, zookeepers, and commissary managers in identifying, locating, and nurturing plant materials for a zoo's animal collection. The zoo horticulturist's knowledge is invaluable in providing "browse" plants for specialized animal diets and supplementing regular diets. Many zoos maintain blocks of plants ("browse") specially suited and available for the dietary needs of the zoo's animal collection. Of special concern is the identification of potentially toxic plants and ensuring that zoo animals do not have access to them.
Establishing interesting plant collections:
At the heart of the horticulturist or gardener is a desire to share the world of plants with others, and what better way than to establish and maintain collections of plants to capture the interest of zoo visitors. Zoos are often recognized for their beautiful, engaging collections of plants. Plant collections allow visitors to learn fascinating facts about plants and their importance to all life on earth.
Conservation of plants and the environment:
Zoo horticulturists are actively involved in conservation efforts and reminding the public that many plant species are also threatened from habitat destruction and other forces. Zoo horticulturists are often the key people in their institution's efforts to "reduce, reuse, and recycle." Composting of zoo wastes is often the job of the horticulture/grounds maintenance department.