Horticulture Happenings This Fall

October 19, 2023

It’s fall, y’all! As the seasons change, that means an update from our Horticulture team, which keeps the zoo landscape healthy and beautiful no matter what time of year it is. If you’ve been here, you’ve certainly seen how the cooler weather is affecting the color of the leaves on perennials and woody plants. The hues become more muted and the lushness of the foliage dwindles. Leaves may become more sparse, but plant textures are heightened and the zoo’s beauty takes on a different form.

Fall Horticulture Tasks

Winter is coming and there’s much work to be done in the meantime. Fall tasks for the Horticulture team include switching out planters and garden beds to include fall annuals such as cabbages, kale, and swiss chard, which you can see on grounds now. During the first week of November, you may see Horticulture staff and volunteers planting bulbs like tulips, daffodils, and allium, which will become blooms in the spring.

Annuals that have stopped blooming are removed from grounds and pruning takes place after plants go dormant. Perennials are cut back with roots intact. Horticulture staff also installs potted evergreens and winter greenery for ZooLights Presented by ComEd and Invesco QQQ  The team will take some time during the winter months to design the planters and seasonal color for the upcoming season, as well as start new designs for permanent plantings around the zoo.

Along with that, the Horticulture team continues to manage the landscape at Nature Boardwalk. This fall, the zoo will ignite its first prescribed burn, which is designed to remove invasive trees and plants so that other native ones have room to grow and gather sunlight. Burns within the prairie ecosystem also help decompose dead matter that has built up, returning nutrients to the ground. When it created Nature Boardwalk back in 2010, Horticulture staff designed an ecosystem as close as possible to what’s in the wild, so a prescribed burn is a way of keeping that system as healthy as possible.

Creature Considerations

Summer plants may go dormant, but they are reused and recycled just as many things at the zoo are. In fact, many animals benefit from end-of-summer­ plant turnover­—but this is done very intentionally, with an eye toward their wellbeing.

To start with, all plants are reviewed and categorized by zoo veterinarian Dr. Kathryn Gamble to make sure they are safe for different animal species. When Horticulture starts getting ready to plant, they align their garden designs with this information. They must also look at what’s available at local suppliers and what’s workable at the zoo, which doesn’t have a greenhouse (we do have a small propagation area for keeping plants in the off-season and taking cuttings).

“From there, we use that list to aid us in design of the gardens,” Director of Horticulture Katrina Quint says. “If I don’t have a species of plant on the list, I’ll send the vet team a notification and the plant will be evaluated. Then, we will choose some plants that are browse- or habitat-approved, so they can be reused in habitats once the summer season is over.”

If a plant is allowed to come into the zoo, it’s managed after the growing season is over. If it’s animal-friendly, it may become browse. It could also be classified either toxic or non-toxic. Plants that are non-toxic are further classified based on whether or not they are habitat-approved. Some may be acceptable for on-grounds use but are managed in a way that keeps them from being consumed by animals. Others may be considered safe to put in habitats—they won’t hurt an animal if they’re nibbled upon.

Some plants are reused in zoo building interiors but not allowed for consumption include tropical plants like begonias, elephant ears, and shell ginger. Cordyline is another example of a plant species that can be used in zoo interiors but not in animal habitats.

Among the plants that can be planted in habitats are banana plants, long leaf figs, and tropical hibiscus. Others, like zinnias with their edible flowers, can be taken directly from the garden and fed as browse. Primates, as well as turtles and tortoises, like to play with and eat them once they’re separated from their root balls. However, which plants each species gets is up to the discretion of Animal Care staff members. They’ll decide that based on individual animal needs.

Where to Find the Plants This Fall

If you’re looking for some of these reused plants, make sure you look carefully at animal habitats across the zoo, especially in Regenstein Small Mammal–Reptile House (like the sloth, iguana, stingray, caiman, and otter areas) as well as Regenstein African Journey (wetland birds, pygmy hippos, dry thorn forest, and giraffes, for example).

And don’t forget to take a trip over to Nature Boardwalk to see the amazing prairie landscape as it transitions to cooler temperatures along the lakeshore. Maybe you’ll get a chance to see the prescribed burn in progress, if you come at the right time. Don’t panic—we’re on it.


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