Introduction to Park Horticulture

Posted at 1:16 pm July 27, 2010 by Lauren Young

View from the Park's Baja Garden

Have you ever wondered about the beautiful landscapes you see at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park? The Park’s gardens are tended to by a team of 28 hard-working horticulture staff, broken into eight teams. One team maintains the large field exhibits and the Journey into Africa trail path, while others work on the greenbelt area of botanical gardens, irrigation, and integrated pest management. There is a team of arborists who care for the many trees on grounds, and two teams of horticulturists that maintain the central Nairobi Village area. With a total of 850 acres of trees, shrubs, flowers, and other plants to maintain, the horticulturists stay very busy.

As a summer horticulture intern at the Wild Animal Park, one of the places I have become familiar with is the Baja Garden. Comprised of plants collected in Baja California during the 1980s, this garden houses the largest collection of Baja plants outside of Baja. The garden is maintained by volunteers from the San Diego Cactus and Succulent Society. In 2002, a geographic information system (GIS) was created for the garden area, which mapped plants in the collection, assigned them identification numbers, and noted the health of the plant. Now, nearly eight years after the initial mapping, it’s time to work on updating the data; we have returned to the Baja Garden armed with GIS maps and lists of plants to check that they are still healthy and accounted for.

As any visitor can imagine, this has proven to be a very “prickly” job, as the Baja Garden is full of thorny species. Did you know that thorns and spines are plant adaptations developed to ensure that animals cannot eat the succulent flesh in a land where water is a precious commodity? The metal tags containing the plant’s ID number, which some of you may have noticed, are stuck into the ground on the north side of the plants and must be located during the inventory to ensure that the correct specimen is being evaluated. In many cases a flourishing agave plant has overgrown its tag; the map is needed to pinpoint the specimen we are evaluating, and a flag is placed at the site to note that it needs a shiny new metal tag. On the other hand, such as with the Fouquieria columnaris, growth is much slower and the tag is usually easy to locate, providing it has not been moved or buried!

If you have not visited the Park’s Baja Garden, I highly recommend making it one of your first stops in the morning hours. There are amazing specimens of Fouquieria columnaris, commonly known as the boojum tree, which somewhat resembles an upside-down carrot sticking out of the earth. Another noteworthy species is the Pachycereus pecten-aboriginum (hairbrush cactus), a cactus whose scientific name is derived from the Native American use of its fruit as hair combs. Plants are not the only species worth viewing in the Baja Garden; there are an amazing number of hummingbirds that zoom around drinking from brightly colored flowers of the ocotillo Fouquieria splendens and other species.

When you next visit the Park, take time to look beyond the fascinating animals and include in your gaze the beautiful and distinctive plants that adorn the grounds, for without them your journeys away from Southern California and into the other biozones of the world would be far less complete.

Lauren Young is an intern in the Wild Animal Park’s Horticulture Department.

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One Response to “Introduction to Park Horticulture”

  1. Bernie says:

    Good Evening Lauren,
    I purchased a plant in 1985 at your plant store which I thought was called a South African Lily. It has white flowers that shoot up and bloom in October. Approximately 35 small flowers at the end of ~ 12 inch green stem. It gives out small red berries after the flowers wither away. Do I have the correct name and do you still sell that plant?
    Thank you

    Park Horticulture Staff responds: It might be one of these taxa: Agapanthus, Ornithogalum, Lilium, or Eucomis. It would help if we could get a photo. If possible, send to