The Zoo Blooms in Summer

June 9, 2022

Spring is well on its way to turning into a fun, active, sensational Chicago summer. At Lincoln Park Zoo, that means blooms are flourishing everywhere—thousands of different plants, mixed together to create a riot of color that beautifies the grounds in striking ways. 

The Horticulture staff is responsible for this glorious transformation—and if you visit, you can’t miss their hard work. They helped foster the growth of crowds of daffodils and tulips that brightened zoo landscapes early in spring, which now give way to dramatic perennials like early-summer irises and peonies. Of course, they also tend the grounds year-round to make sure this is a friendly space for the 3,000 plant species that grow here.  

Flowering dogwood. Photo courtesy of Ellen Neely.

This season, their work includes putting summer annuals into the soil and populating dozens of containers with brilliant arrangements to create designs that reflect the individual style of each horticulturist. These flowers are often chosen based on similar water, shade, and care requirements.  

You can find colorful plant displays everywhere you go, from Edie Levy Landmark Café at the zoo’s center to Safari Café on the zoo’s north end to Foreman Pavilion and Café Brauer, which features 26 planters on the south end of the zoo. Horticulturists put their own spin on the plant beds they design, incorporating many different varieties of begonias, cosmos, cannas, zinnias, and so much more. They also take inspiration from different visual sources—everything from the color palettes of specific flowers or wild and airy landscapes to the art on album covers of their favorite musicians. They also take into account plants that benefit the local pollinators and the potential for the plants to be reused for animal enrichment.  

As summer arrives, the zoo’s old and storied trees remain a big draw. Lincoln Park Zoo grounds are, naturally, covered with trees, including plenty of flowering woody plants from crabapples to magnolias.  As an accredited arboretum, the zoo makes a point of caring for and providing education about these stunning trees. They include a flowering dogwood and a redbud, which guests may have seen sporting flowers in the spring, along with a tulip poplar that is blooming now with orange-banded tulip-shaped flowers, and a golden rain tree with lacy leaves that will be covered with clustered yellow flowers by midsummer. 

Tulip poplar. Photo courtesy of Ellen Neely.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the zoo’s notable trees, you can find a digital Trees of Interest map on the Lincoln Park Zoo website that will show you how to locate them all over the zoo. 

No matter when you arrive at Lincoln Park Zoo, though, you’ll find something botanically new to see—including the zoo’s living library of herbaceous perennial hibiscus, which has received national accreditation from the American Public Gardens Association Plant Collections Network. These flowers bloom every year from July to September.  

As the season continues, you’ll want to come back as often as you can to experience the changes in the landscape, not only on zoo grounds, but also at the zoo’s 14-acre Nature Boardwalk surrounding south pond. Native plants are the stars of Nature Boardwalk, bringing beautiful color and supporting our local pollinators and wildlife. Katrina Quint, the zoo’s Director of Horticulture, says, “The gardens are constantly changing, with different plants coming into flower every week. There is always something new to discover.” 

Batik bearded iris. Photo courtesy of Ellen Neely.

One fun, free way of doing this: take the Second Saturday Garden Tours, which happen monthly on the second Saturday of each month. These hour-long events begin at 10 a.m., meeting at the zoo’s south entrance near Café Brauer, and are suitable for all ages. The next one takes place on June 11. 

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