From Seed to Sky
Zoo Plants On a Carefully Planned Life Cycle
In another kind of life cycle, the zoo’s gardens feature green life ranging from first shoots to tallest trunks.
They appear onstage in just one scene, but annuals turn their brief cameo into a tour de force.
“They give the big show,” says Director of Horticulture Brian Houck. “Annuals are all about flower power."
These ornamental plants live it up for one growing season from Memorial Day weekend into October. Sprouting from containers artfully arranged throughout zoo grounds, annuals deliver a vibrant constellation of color that varies year to year.
Two years ago fuego pink verbena and bubblegum petunias powered a pink-themed palette. Yellow, orange and blue took a turn last summer. Starring this season: medium lavender.
“We alternate between cold and hot—this is a cool year,” says Houck.
Look for the metallic purple–striped leaves of Persian shield (above), violet-hued snapdragon-like flowers of “Angelface” angelonia and compact clusters of blue lavender-silver “Shock Wave” petunias.
Timing and planning are key. Staff and volunteers organize plants and containers and plant everything in the week leading up to Memorial Day.
“It’s a few days of madness but very fun,” says Houck.
Where annuals provide a single-note exclamation mark, perennials are the workhorses of the zoo’s gardens.
Essentially root crops, different perennial species bloom in spring, summer and fall. They come in an infinite variety and can be dug up, divided and moved around to create new garden spaces.
“Part of my job as a horticulture designer is to integrate those different types so we have beauty in the landscape during all seasons,” says Houck.
Perennials can be short-term or long-term. Potentially, they can live decades. Large masses of a particular species—like the sprawling lily-of-the-valley beds near the Antelope & Zebra Area and flamingo dome—indicate impressive longevity.
The zoo’s horticulture database catalogues hundreds of perennials, but some to look for include flowering hibiscus, buddleia (a.k.a. “the butterfly bush”), Russian sage, yellow coneflowers and grasses like little bluestem.
How perennials appear when they’re in and out of bloom, as well as how they’re juxtaposed with other plants, is key to a coherent landscape scheme.
“It can’t all be the same, but we want it to feel like it’s the same garden theme as you walk from the south end to the north end of the zoo,” says Houck.
Living on the Edge
Shrubs like boxwood, viburnum and juniper aren’t there to take up space. These versatile, hardy plants—capable of living for decades—furnish a sculptural framework for landscape-design vignettes within the zoo’s gardens.
They also conceal unattractive facilities infrastructure and—notably the evergreens—provide pleasing tones, shapes and textures in winter. Fruiting shrubs like viburnum even contribute in a small way to animal diets at the zoo.
Lincoln Park Zoo is four years shy of its 150th birthday. The bur oak on the South Lawn just west of the Helen Brach Primate House’s gibbon exhibit is just as old or older. Five other oaks— including two near the polar bear exhibit, one in the alpaca yard and another behind the Regenstein Birds of Prey Exhibit—also exceed the century mark.
You can see how the Primate House was built around that old bur oak,” says Houck. “Likewise, the pavement was adjusted around two gigantic elms on the west side of Park Place Café when that structure was built. These trees remember a time before all this stuff was here.
Caring for such historic trees requires acting as a steward of the landscape, Houck adds.
His team is building on that stewardship at Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo, where they’ve planted a nascent black oak savanna along the northwest shore of the South Pond.
“Ten years from now the branches will be wide enough to provide shade over a bench,” says Houck. “But oaks can live 100, 200 or 300 years. Aside from shade and their beauty in every season, they evoke such a sense of time. If you’re planting an oak tree, you’re planning for it to be enjoyed 30 years down the road by your children and grandchildren.”
By Craig Keller • Published July 17, 2014 • Originally published in Spring 2014 Lincoln Park Zoo Magazine
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