Out of This World

April 15, 2021

Lincoln Park Zoo received national accreditation from the American Public Gardens Association Plant Collections Network for its herbaceous perennial hibiscus collection, a vibrant and natural addition to a cherished urban oasis.

Over the past four years, herbaceous perennial hibiscus have taken root throughout Lincoln Park Zoo, becoming the most common genus of all the plants living on grounds. Individual cultivars— blossoming in shades of red, pink, yellow, and white with vibrant names like Mocha Moon, Stardust, and Mars Madness—now add a splash of color to seemingly every available space throughout this cherished urban oasis. But like all things at Lincoln Park Zoo, they represent much more than aesthetic appeal. “One of the biggest benefits is being able to show visitors how they can integrate these really beautiful and useful plants into their own landscapes,” says Abby Lorenz, manager of plant records and horticulture programs. “Since all our plants are labeled, you can see the exact combinations in our various spaces. Plus, they’re native to the Midwest, so you know they’ll thrive and support our local ecosystem, and their colors are out of this world.”

Pictured above: Stardust. Photo courtesy of Ellen Neely.


In recent years, the zoo has embraced a science-based focus on plant care and ecosystem planning that mirrors the passion and energy devoted to animal welfare. According to Director of Horticulture Katrina Chipman, this made herbaceous perennial hibiscus a perfect fit for the zoo. Four of these species are both cold tolerant and native to North America: Hibiscus moscheutos, H. laevis, H. grandiflorus, and H. coccineus. Yet as recently as 2016, only a handful existed on grounds. Fast forward to 2021 and the zoo’s gardens now include 75 cultivars of those four species, all ranging in flower and leaf color, size, shape, height, and overall form. They also support Chicago’s local wildlife, such as long-tongued bees, bumblebees, caterpillars, and hummingbirds. Along the way, Horticulture staff took hundreds of photographs, recorded phenology, and inventoried the collection on a weekly basis to note the life cycle of each cultivar at any given time. And last summer, thanks to their efforts, Lincoln Park Zoo received national accreditation from the American Public Gardens Association Plant Collections Network for its herbaceous perennial hibiscus.

Pictured above: Mocha Moon. Photo courtesy of Abby Lorenz.

The accreditation marks only the most recent acknowledgement of Horticulture’s growth—in 2019, the zoo earned Level II arboretum accreditation in recognition of the department’s ongoing effort to identify, label, and monitor the tree and woody plant species across the 49-acre park. “Our main goal as a department is to continue developing the gardens so people can come and enjoy nature, and so that wildlife can thrive in these natural spaces,” says Chipman. “Pursuing this accreditation was another way that we, as an organization, could inspire people to appreciate the world around them.”

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