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Savanna Black Locusts in March 1995

Plant Life at Woodland Park Zoo

    This is not about Woodland Park Zoo's hundreds of animals, nor its role in education, its conservation responsibility or about its innovative history. Yes, to discuss a zoo without mentioning animals is like talking restaurants while ignoring the subject of food. But I emphasize plants to convince you to visit the zoo. The zoo is so refreshing in plant life that even if suddenly all its animals were to miraculously disappear, we would still enjoy a worthwhile visit.
    A sinfully abbreviated history must serve to anchor our perspective. Woodland Park, southwest of Green Lake, once lived up to its name mightily, with hundreds of acres packed with towering old-growth firs. Guy Phinney, an Englishman who amassed a fortune by running a sawmill on Lake Washington, bought the tract and transformed it in the 1880s into an amazing estate. His vision was vast and he had the money to make his dreams come true. The nucleus of a zoo, a rose garden, ballfields and many similar embellishments were created. But Phinney died, Seattle bought the land, and for 90 years the park department has had a zoo.
    Not since the early days of Phinney's work have plants been so prominent at the site as they are today. Despite poor, dry soil and a wind-swept elevation, the zoo nutures luxurious greenery. Plant compositions feature natural informality to stimulate visitors boldly. Yearly there are more exciting plants such as bamboos, kiwi vines, loquats, big-leaved magnolias, palms and eucalypts. These designs afford the proper atmosphere both to animals and visitors, plus they trounce old-fashioned sterile designs in an ecologic sense.
    After all, making a home comfortable for animals and educational to viewers means (polar bears and penguins excepted) using appropriate plants. Within this broad mandate, there must be wildly different settings: desert, tropic, swamp, high-montane, boreal tundra, savanna, etc. Indoor exhibits allow free use of tender plants. The whole world of plants and animals is brought together in one place.
    At the zoo today is a shocking contrast of new thinking versus old --exemplified in the elephant homes. Compare the new southeast habitat with the old northwest facility. Like exchanging a shack for a mansion. It gives one hope! Despite plodding bureaucracy, raging war and the enervating weight of blind tradition, vast improvements are being made. I won't try describing the plants in the two extremes; words are truly insufficient. You must see for yourself.
    An important component of the gradual zoo redevelopment is a special effort to preserve trees. Fully a dozen different species at the zoo are on the Washington State Big-Tree list. Meaning each is either taller, or stouter in trunk or spreads its branches wider than any other specimen known in Washington. These trees are mostly ones planted by Phinney, ranging from a Pin Oak in the pigsty to an English Yew in the rose garden. Numerous other trees, though not of surpassing size, offer color, shade, sculptured silhouettes and --in one word-- life.
    The Family Farm, formerly known as the Children's Zoo, is among my favorite places in the zoo. Every time I round a corner a fresh delight awaits. The planting is generally young enough to be still fresh and healthy, but old enough to be no longer raw. Its north portion is the part of the zoo most like a landscaped ornamental garden, with flowering trees, areas of lawn, stones and water. Its heart is a bit of the country farm transplanted successfully in the city. Fruit trees, grape vines, vegetables and herbs thrive in the well-manured earth.
    The Savanna is the glory of the zoo. Who can gaze upon the broad expanse of waving grasses without admiring the achievement here? The hippos in their pond, and zebras on the plain, give us a glimpse of another world: a bit of sunny Kenya in a metropolis! The landmark Black Locust trees (PHOTO ABOVE) in the Lion exhibit are rugged-trunked, fine foliaged substitutes for African acacias.
    The Gorilla-viewing area is nestled in a shady bower, with large-leaved Fatsia and Magnolias perfectly suggesting humid tropical jungles. For supreme contrast, a mere hundred feet westward you can see pink flamingos parading against a backdrop of Sugar Maples --with bright Photinia in the foreground. Those fascinated with splashy color take note!
    The rose garden, it must be admitted, provokes emotional conflict. It is a bright, sweet and heavenly place in June for lovers of hybrid tea roses. But compared to the ecologically vibrant, informal richness of the new animal exhibits, the rose garden looks naked in its clipped primness. The blah military echos of formal rows of evenly spaced bushes glares at the zoo whose motto is "It's a Jungle out there."
    The zoo's goal of landscape creation is to weave tapestries of trees, shrubs, vines and herbaceous plants that work together as effective groups supplying food, beauty, inspiration and serenity. Zoo employees, outside consultants and contractors, benefactors and an indispensable corps of volunteers all make it happen. The renovation and construction is costly, messy and takes years. But step by step we advance. See for yourself.

Woodland Park Zoo
5500 Phinney Ave N
Seattle, WA 98103
(206) 684-4800

(Originally written in 1991. Some of this article was republished in my 1996 article Trees of Woodland Park Zoo)

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Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert

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