Meet Our Staff: Gardener Mike Masterson

Posted at 5:05 pm December 15, 2008 by Mychael McNeeley

Mike Masterson began working for the San Diego Zoo in August of 1972. Although the job was supposed to be temporary working the Skyfari ride, Mike ended up staying on while going to college (he referred to himself, at the time, as a “Skyfariologist”). In 1977, Mike took two consecutive temporary positions in the Zoo’s Horticulture Department. Just as the second stint was about to end, a full-time position became available at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park and he secured that just in the nick of time. Mike worked at the Park until December 2006, when the Zoo hired him back.

As Mike says, he has “come full circle now.” He is currently working as a lead gardener with the LIMS (Landscape Installation and Maintenance Specialists). LIMS is a crew of six gardeners working all over the Zoo on special landscape projects. He really enjoys being part of this group of gardeners who work so hard and have a good time doing it. Mike says, “I love working with others who are similarly afflicted by plants. It is great to work with people who are dedicated to making the Zoo the best garden it can be.”

Mike is a self-described “plant addict.” While he finds something he likes about all plant groups, he especially likes cycads, palms, and bulbs. When visiting a nursery or looking through catalogs, he is most attracted to the plants he doesn’t recognize. Mike enjoys the fact that the Zoo is such a great place to see plants one may never see elsewhere.

Mike considers himself to be a very fortunate person to make a living doing something he loves to do. He has been able to work with many plants and plant collections at the Park and Zoo. Mike has especially enjoyed working with the Aloes, the California Native Plants, and the Palm and Cycad collections. He also says that, best of all, had he not worked at the Park, he would have never met his wife, Joyce, whom he married in July of 1979. Their daughter, Caitie, now works at the Wild Animal Park!

I asked Mike what advice he would give to someone new to the Zoo. He replied, “Take advantage of the unique situation you have found yourself in. If you are doing something you truly love to do, the rewards are more meaningful than money.”

Mychael McNeeley is a lead gardener at the San Diego Zoo.

Read a blog written by Mike: Construction Zone Plants

Meet more Zoo gardeners:

Meet Our Staff: Gardener Judy Bell

Meet Our Staff: Gardener Tom Luedtke

Meet Our Staff: Gardener Bruce Fontaine

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Comments are currently closed. Pinging is not allowed.

13 Responses to “Meet Our Staff: Gardener Mike Masterson”

  1. Pepsi Coke says:

    Great job Mike! keep up the good work!

  2. Shirley Sykes says:

    A nice blog, Mike. (Sorry I haven’t responded sooner.) The cycad collections are marvelous, as are the aloes, palms, caudiciforms and, well, all of them!! I’m not alone in being thrilled that the Madagascar Garden is being preserved as part of the new Elephant Odyssey. And this morning I was delighted to see that the ancient cactus near the north end of the construction zone is apparently full of blooms. Sure wish we all could get up closer to see it! I do so appreciate all the hard work you and your fellow horticulturists do to keep our zoo so very special!

  3. shannon says:

    Hi, I’m seeing that Mychael is answering questions regarding plant identification… I have one–a question, that is… There are 2 awesome trees over across from the lagoon (under the walkway where the harpie eagle and other various large birds of prey are kept). They have a beautiful bloom, and then develop some sort of green apricot looking fruit on them that falls to the ground unharvested… Are those almond trees? Exactly what kind are they? Does anyone know? I’d really appreciate being able to find this out! Thanks so much!

    Mychael responds:

    Hi, Shannon,

    Those are peach trees. They are most likely from seeds that dropped years ago from the bridge and don’t produce good fruit. I do agree, they are beautiful when they are in bloom!

  4. Dorothy M. Simon says:

    Dear Mr. Masterson: My husband and I were visiting your zoo in April and we have never seen so many beautiful plants and trees. Is there a web site I could get on to find out the names? By your koi pond, there are a couple of weeping trees that I have been trying to find. I didn’t think to ask anyone when we were there. There is also a flowering purple tree. There are so many on my list and pictures.

    I would appreciate any information you can give me. We are from Sacramento and would love to plant some of the same trees and plants.

    Thank you, Dorothy M. Simon

    Moderator’s note: We’re glad to hear you enjoyed our beautiful garden! Please visit our plant section at

    From here you can search for species in bloom, by name, by garden area, and much more.

  5. Amanda says:


    We visited the Wild Animal Park last week and, at the exit gate there was THE MOST BEAUTIFUL, fragrant, ginormous, honeysuckle-like flowers and vines all over the exit gate. What is this please??? I have googled and googled but no luck yet! It wasn’t listed on the Park’s plant list that I could find.

    Thank you so much!

    Moderator’s Note: That’s a thriving Pyrostegia venusta, or flame vine.

  6. Andy says:


    We have a 40-50 year old tree furn that has out grown our courtyard flowerbed and is beginning to lean rather heavily from the roots and soft soil. Is there a place it may be donated? I hate to see the poor thing die. Thank you for any suggestions.

  7. Rick Crippen says:

    I am like you in that I like the plants I don’t recognize. I was at the zoo, Tuesday, June 30. There is an orange colored flower bottlebrush tree. It is about 100 yards(?) north of the park entrance along the sidewalk. I would very much like to know what it is. My best guess is a Callistemon pinefolius but that is only from searches on the internet. I have never seen that color anywhere else in person. Pinefolius flowers apparently come in lime green or orange but they don’t look as pure an orange as the one you have at the zoo.

    Also — where could I find one? Does the zoo sell plants like the arboretums do?

    Thanks, RC

  8. Rick Crippen says:

    I have been searching the internet and I may have found it. Rather than a callistemon it may be the Melaleuca lateritia.

    Please let me know what you think and any suggestions where they can be purchased in So. Calif.


  9. Mychael McNeeley says:


    I apologize for taking so long to respond.

    I’ve done a little research myself and asked around. That plant is one we don’t have a certain ID for, although I tend to think it is a Callistemon, due to the fact that the stamens appear to be “free,” i.e. they enter the flower tube separately. Melaleuca stamens tend to unite before they enter the flower tube. I wish I could tell you for sure, and I will continue to look into it, but for now I wanted to at least get back to you.

    It is a lovely plant. Thanks for your interest.


  10. Mychael McNeeley says:

    Dear Dorothy (#4),

    Glad you enjoyed the plants so much at the Zoo!

    The weeping conifer at the Oriental Garden near the falls is a Kashmir cypress (Cupressus cashmeriana). There are also several weeping junipers (Juniperus scopolorum).

    I’m guessing the flowering purple trees are purple leaf plums (Prunus cerasifera ‘Atropurpurea’. If you meant purple flowers (as opposed to purple leaves), there are many species around the Zoo. The tree in the Oriental Garden between the large pond and the waterfall with pink trumpet flowers is a Tabebuia impetiginosa.

    If you’re at the Zoo again and have plant questions, please feel free to ask anyone with a radio to call Horticulture and if anyone is available, we would be happy to answer your questions.

    Take care,


  11. Beth says:

    Yesterday we went to the zoo with company from out of town and had a wonderful time. We are members and really appreciate having such a wonderful place to visit. I spend a lot of time admiring all of the plants along the trails. Couldn’t believer all the trees in bloom. Absolutely beautiful!

    I did notice that some of the bamboo looked like it had some type of infestation. I am not sure, but the bamboo looked like ‘golden goddess’. Many of the nodes looked blackened, or sooty, and the leaves on the branches looked like they were browning and falling off. Could you please tell me what insect, or fungal infection is causing this?

    Thank you,


  12. Tavo says:

    I want to thank you so much for all your help & comin to work every day.. even on your days off your a great team player… with a good funny heart…laughing is healthy for a person… you should be a laughing doctor…. treat people that have no sence of humor & then give them a rose to take home the horticulture side of you …much respects…..Tavo

  13. JAVIER MUNIZ says:

    One of the best kept gardens I´ve visited in a long time, I was impressed by an artificial kind of wood chips and fillings that looks increadiblly real, I think its made out of rubber or silicone, there is a tree outside the polar bear exhibit wich has this kind of material in its base, I wonder what is it and where can I find a dealer.
    I have not been at SD zoo in about two years don´t know if it is still there, but I think you might know what I´m talking about.

    Moderator’s note: You can buy it at most home improvement retailers.