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Pacific Northwest

BY VALERIE EASTON / Seattle, Washington, USDA Zone 8

Fauna’s Flora

Northwest garden designers often recommend their clients visit the Woodland Park Zoo for inspiration. A leader in bio-simulation horticulture, the zoo houses its creatures in naturalistic landscapes that please people as much as they do the animals. Visitors saunter past a hot Australian hillside, submerge themselves in a dense tropical rainforest, or navigate a rugged Alaskan wilderness—all illusions created with tough, hard-working, hardy plants.

For too many years, zoos housed animals in cages arranged by taxonomic category. No matter what their natural habitat, monkeys were displayed with other monkeys, and all the big cats lived side-by-side. The Woodland Park Zoo’s master plan, completed by the Seattle landscape architecture firm of Jones and Jones in the mid-1970s, was revolutionary in its bioclimatic zone arrangement of animals in realistic groupings.

But what a challenge for zoo horticulturists, whose hard work shows in each magnificent display of cleverly designed plantings, now lusciously matured, inside and outside the exhibits. Charged with searching out plants that would survive beyond the reach of an elephant’s trunk or a gorilla’s capacity for play, the gardeners quickly came to know each species’ eating and living habits. Plants had to simulate a variety of natural environments, from the savannah to the jungle—and survive outdoors in Seattle with minimal care. Most of the plants are broad-leaved evergreens with sturdy, year-round good looks, such as viburnum and nandina, with some mammoth gunnera, fuzzy kiwi vines, and spiky flax and yucca blended in for exotic flair.

E. J. Hook, the zoo’s facilities operations supervisor, loves the unique challenges of his job. “Here, the plants get touched, by people and animals,” says Hook. Plants play a great many roles in this landscape. Besides comforting the animals, they shape views and muffle noise so that even on a typical day, when six thousand to nine thousand people visit the zoo, each guest can feel a connection with the animals and perhaps even find a moment of solitude.

The zoo’s heavily planted 92 acres offer not only a lesson in design but also in landscape management. The zoo maintains a policy of pursuing the least toxic solution first. No herbicides are used inside the exhibits, and outside they’re applied only as needed, with soil improvement and weeding by hand the techniques of choice. “Manicured is not what it’s about for us—it’s the survival of the fittest, as we mostly let the plants alone to grow into their own natural shapes,” says Hook. “We mimic nature, and then let nature take its course.rsquo;

Animals are complicated creatures with complex behaviors, and living in familiar environments greatly improves their quality of life. The plantings that soften and surround their enclosures offer privacy, playthings, food, and shelter. Such immersion encourages the animals to act as they might in the wild, which in turn helps visitors to share in and understand the animal world. At the same time, visitors enjoy some pretty cool plants, so skillfully chosen and placed that they provide us escape, for an hour or two anyway, from our own native environment. H

WORTH GROWING

Carpenteria californica

This plant has proven itself reliably hardy in the warmer areas of the Northwest, especially when planted in freely draining soil. A Californian beauty, it’s commonly called the bush anemone for its large, fragrant white flowers, each centered with a brilliant fluff of yellow stamens. Glossy green leaves are attractive year-round, and when covered with flowers it is the showiest plant in the garden, even during the floriferous month of June. Sources, page 96.

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