Photo by Melody

The San Diego Zoo: Not just for animals

By Geoff Stein (palmbobFebruary 18, 2014

The San Diego Zoo is one of the more popular tourist destinations in the U.S., but hardly anyone notices their fantastic plant collection. It has a magnificent botanical gardens as well, but since it exists in, among, and around the animal collection, it is sometimes easy to miss. This article is an introduction to this amazing collection.

Gardening picture (Editor's Note: This article was originally published on February 26, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please keep in mind that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)

I am lucky enough to live just a few hours from the San Diego Zoo and have visited it many times over the last 15 years.  Being a veterinarian interested in exotic animals, it has been one of my favorite destinations in southern California.  However in recent years I have become more involved in plants and I now pay a lot more attention to them wherever I go.  About 10 years ago, I noticed thois zoo has a fantastic plant collection as well as one of the best animal collections in the world.  Lately when I visit the San Diego Zoo I barely notice the animals anymore- there is way too much plant material to distract me.  The zoo, and much of San Diego, has one of the best growing climates on the entire west coast of the US, surpassed only by southern Florida and Hawaii.  And the zoo happily has taken advantage of this wonderful climate and made the most of it by creating one of the most impressive botanical gardens in all of California. 

The zoo sits in the middle of Balboa Park, which boasts an incredible collection of tropical palms and other plants.  One of the most amazing plantings I have ever seen, ‘palm canyon', is in the park, and displays large colonies of some rare and mature palms in numbers probably only seen only in the wild.  Balboa Park also has a large impressive succulent collection with a lot of old and healthy Aloes, Agaves and Euphorbias.

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Views of Balboa Park and some of its plants, near the San Diego Zoo: two tall king palms, a large Euphorbia ingens, and Howea belmoreanas in Palm Canyon

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Howea forsterianas and Phoenix palms in front of Balboa Park buildings;  right is two magnificent Bismarckia palms next to the outdoor botanical garden shade structure in Balboa Park

When you approach the zoo, you get a hint of the amazing plants in store just from the impressive collection growing around the gates: huge palms of about 15 different species, some amazingly large Beuacarneas, giant topiaries, flowering trees and huge towering Eucalyptus. 

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Eucalyptus and Archontophoenix alexandrae palm near entrance of zoo (left); Beaucarnea showing off its amazing fat trunk in front of zoo; (right) large Cycas circinalis and Cycas revolutas near front gate of zoo

I have no idea how many plants are growing on the zoo grounds as I am usually distracted by the succulents and tropicals.  I do know they have a few species of palm I have not seen growing anywhere else.  And they have many rare aloes and cycads; their immense size attests to their extreme age.  Where all these plants came from I have no idea, though I do know a lot of the palms and cycads came from local growers in the San Diego area.

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Some of the cycads at the zoo (Dioon holmgrenii, Dioon meijaes and a beautiful Encephalartos princeps)

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Male Encephalartos ferox rare curly leaf form in cone; close up of a great looking female Encephalartos ferox cone; perfect looking Encephalartos longifolius

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they have a great cactus collection, and some nice staghorn ferns, too

Among the plants that attract my attention in the zoo are the large and varied palm and cycad collection.  They even have maps of these genera you can get at the entrance, so you can wander about the zoo and look at just these plants if you want to.  But I have also noticed a large and varied bamboo collection, probably one of the largest in California.  The zoo plant folks have used many varied cacti and succulents to landscape the sunnier areas of the zoo.  There is a fern canyon full of lush, tropical water-needy plants.  There are hundreds, if not thousands, of trees and their tropical tree collection is impressive.  One of my favorites is the gigantic Ficus macrophylla banyan (Moreton Bay Fig) that is growing right in front of you as you enter the zoo and see all the flamingos.  This massive tree is the one that got me first interested in tropical plants over a dozen years ago.


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Massive Moreton Bay Fig near zoo entrance, and close up of some of its banyaning branches, all near the Flamingos

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Row of King palms (left); Triangle Palms (middle) and perfect Dypsis leptocheilos (not a super rare palm, but rare to see one so perfect in California)- right hand photo

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Livistona decorum (left); Pritchardias around the reptile house (middle);  Rhopalostylis near the iguana pens (right)

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large Araucaria (left); one of my favorite conifers (Kashmir Blue Cypress); and Schizolobium towering above the other trees (right)

The plants are not placed haphazardly about the zoo; it is obvious there was a lot of planning involved; something I am sure is lost the majority of the the zoo's visitors.  But I have not failed to notice that there is a preponderance of Australian plants near some of the more popular Australians animal exhibits, there are tropical plants around the tropical birds and mammals, there is Eucalyptus near the pandas, more temperate plants where one finds to polar bears, and so on.  Most of the cycads are in the same area, as are many of the palms.  If you likes aloes, you will find they are mostly in the same area, as are the agaves, Euphorbias etc.   The landscaping is fantastic and the zoo obviously spends a lot of money and effort keeping it that way. 

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Another of my favorite type of plant, aloes, are in abundance at the zoo.  First photo is of a massive tree aloe- probably an Aloe 'Hercules'; second of colorful Aloe dorotheas; and multibranches Aloe pluridens in the lizard pen

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Bamboo groves throughout the zoo

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bizzare succulents from around the world- Brighamia colony, succulent Lobelias, Cyphostemmas in winter

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More amazing palm collections (last photo by OregonCoastSeth)

If you are planning to visit the San Diego Zoo, try to do it in two days.  Use the first to see the animals, and the second day to just concentrate on the plants (that could actually take you 2 or 3 days just for that!)

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And of course, they have an awesome animal collection: Meerkats, Agamid lizard, silverback Gorilla

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Albino Burmese Python, Chimpanzee, and Asian Elephant

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Pygmy Hippo, Panda, Gharial

Image author, looking a LOT like some zoo animal (see those simian knuckles?)


  About Geoff Stein  
Geoff SteinVeterinarian and Exotic Plant Lover... and obsessive, compulsive collector of all oddball tropical and desert plants.

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