California is home to the highest peak in the continental U.S. (Mount Whitney) and the lowest valley (Death Valley). We have areas of very high temperatures and very low temperatures. Some regions are inundated with rain year round and others receive only a few inches. These diverse conditions have given rise to a huge variety of native plants, each specially adapted to these climactic extremes. You’ll find several examples at the Zoo. When you arrive, slow down and admire the beauty of California plants as you climb the entry plaza stairs. At the Winnick Family Children’s Zoo, be sure to stop and smell the native roses and the heady aroma of the Cleveland sage. In the North American section, you’ll find the stunning yellow-flowering flannel bush, the deep blue “Dark Star” Ceanothus, and several varieties of Ribes or gooseberry shrubs.
In late spring you will notice an increasing amount of wildflowers throughout the Zoo grounds. The best show is from the golden California poppies (our state flower) that are interspersed among the native plants along the boardwalk near the Zoo entrance. These are joined by the streamside monkeyflowers and blue-eyed grass (right) — not really a grass, but a relative of the iris. Columbine and coral bells also show up in small groupings here and there. Many varieties of gooseberries and currants dot the landscape in a delicate floral show that attracts many hummingbirds. Enjoy these ephemeral gifts of nature while you’re visiting the Zoo, because they won’t last very long. But the memories they leave will stay with you for many seasons to come.
What do Fig Newtons, tires, and silk shirts have in common? They’re all derived from the mulberry family, a large group of plants that includes edible fig trees, rubber trees, and mulberry trees (the leaves of which are fed to silkworms). Members of this family are generally handsome as well as low maintenance, and the Zoo landscape includes many. Weeping figs flutter in front of the black swan exhibit and creeping fig vines (right) are woven into the Eucalyptus Grove hedges. White mulberry trees are one of the most popular browse species at the Zoo. A bounty of fig/ficus trees produce fruits that don’t interest people but are important food sources for many animals. An Indian laurel fig greets guests outside the Winnick Family Children’s Zoo, and a stately rusty leaf fig stands in the center of the Ferraro Rose Garden. Moreton Bay fig trees grow across from the Mahale Mountains amphitheater.
The grass family is a large and amazingly diverse group of plants, from important grains such as wheat, rye, rice, oats, and maize to the many types of ornamental grasses that have been cultivated as ground cover. California is home to many grasses and grass-like plants. The entryway to the Winnick Family Children’s Zoo features several eye-catching species. Large pompom-like clumps of deer grass grow in droopy mounds, while gray rushes (right) grow in striking, spiky bluish gray tufts, many of which end in small brown flower clusters. Purple needle grass (located near the nursery), is named for the long filaments that grow on their flower clusters. As with many other natives, one of the advantages of these grasses is that they are drought tolerant and help to create a landscape that is harmonious with the local climate.
Parasitic plants live off of other plants. Probably the most familiar example is mistletoe, certain species of which occasionally make appearances at the Zoo. Because it has chlorophyll and therefore photosynthesizes some of its nutrients, mistletoe is only semi-parasitic. Dodder (right), also known as witch’s hair, is entirely dependent on its host plants. This member of the morning glory family can frequently be seen overtaking shrubs in the chaparral along many Los Angeles Basin freeways and in Griffith Park. The yellow-orange spaghetti-like strands tap into the host plants’ stem tissue and siphon out water and nutrients. Though they are overshadowed by the vibrant color and creeping growth habit of the main plant body, dodder does produce small white flowers that resemble morning glory blossoms.
Sage makes most people think of holiday feasts, and although this fragrant herb is a culinary gem in the kitchen, it’s just as valuable in the garden. Salvia is the largest genus in the mint family with some 900 species worldwide. Most all salvias have wonderfully aromatic leaves and flowers that vary in color from deep dark blue to pink, white, and purple. Several familiar Southwest species can be found throughout the Zoo, from the riparian gardens that border the parking lot to exhibit areas. Cleveland sage (right) develops into a pleasing rounded shape with lavender flower clusters on long spikes. California white sage features fuzzy silvery gray foliage that is often used to make “smudge sticks.” Many Native American cleansing ceremoies involve burning sage bundles. Autumn sage is native to the Chihuahua Desert region of Texas and Mexico and produces flowers that range from deep scarlet to white.
The hills of the Channel Islands, located off the coast of Ventura, are strewn with jewels for those willing to look closely. Among the gems are numerous animals and plants found only on these islands. Similar flora and fauna may exist on the mainland, but island inhabitants have slowly adapted to the different environmental conditions that exist there. Some examples of these endemic plants are Catalina ironwood, Island bush poppy (right), giant coreopsis, and live-forever. Several of the endemic plants are endangered and their future is uncertain. The Zoo displays many of these natives in the front entrance plaza. Look for them in the gardens adjacent to the ramp walkway as you approach the gift stores. These are all beautiful plants well worth taking a few moments to appreciate during your next visit to the Zoo, or perhaps on your next trip to Catalina.
The next time you think about taking a small cutting of a plant as a souvenir of your journey to a far-away land, think again. You might be on the verge of a criminal act—poaching or smuggling contraband, and violating the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Agreement. The greenhouse at the Zoo is overrun with plants confiscated at airport customs. These plants are eventually assimilated into the landscapes and exhibits of the zoo. The largest and most publicized of these acquisitions, a collection of cycads (right) poached from wild habitat, is now on display in the large garden near the Children’s Zoo. When you are out enjoying nature, and you see a plant that steals your heart, take photographs (or purchase plants that have been propagated by professional growers). When you take from the wild you are reducing the genetic diversity that’s vital for a healthy environment.