An oasis in the heart of the city, the Los Angeles Zoo is home to a wide variety of beautiful botanical wonders – from natives to ancient and rare plants to those that are used for animal food and enrichment.
California is home to the highest peak in the continental U.S. (Mount Whitney) and the lowest valley (Death Valley). We have areas of high and low temperature extremes. 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 habitats. You’ll find many examples at the Zoo.
The plants selected for Entry Plaza complement those that make up the riparian border around the parking lot and include many noteworthy natives. California lilac is a hardy, deep-green shrub that explodes with lovely clusters of bluish-purple flowers in early spring. Manzanita is one of Southern California’s most distinctive shrubs, producing elegant lantern-shaped flowers that attract many pollinators and later form small berry-shaped fruits that are an important source of food for wildlife. Monkey flower is a common chaparral component that produces brightly colored flowers that are said to resemble a grinning monkey face. California wild rose bushes also dot the entry gardens. Rangier than their cultivated cousins, they produce smaller, simpler blooms that are no less beautiful.
Prominent native trees include California fan palms and California sycamores. The latter are common throughout the Zoo and are distinguished by their mottled bark and spiky spherical seed pods, which are a reliable food source that attracts many local birds. The coast live oak is one of Southern California’s signature trees and several have taken root in the entrance garden. These rugged trees will slowly mature and grow into spectacular shapes.
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 — 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. At the Winnick Family Children’s Zoo, be sure to stop and smell the native roses and the heady aroma of the Cleveland sage. You’ll also find Matilija poppies (fried egg plant) and the stunning yellow-flowering flannel bush.
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 with 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. Cleveland sage 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” used in many Native American cleansing ceremonies. Autumn sage is native to the Chihuahua Desert region of Texas and Mexico and produces flowers that range from deep scarlet to white.
Succulents such as cactus are probably the first plants that come to mind when most of us think of water-conserving plants, but many California natives have adapted to arid conditions. In addition to lower water usage, native plants support local birds, butterflies, and other wildlife. California is home to many of the most unique (and some of the most endangered) plant species in North America—so planting natives in your own garden helps to conserve an important part of the Golden State’s natural heritage.
While the Zoo’s gardens include interesting rarities, some of the most important plants are among the most common. Due to our mild Mediterranean climate, the L.A. Zoo is able to grow much of the browse that is an important part of our residents’ daily menu. Acacia, ficus, mulberry, and eucalyptus trees are found throughout the Zoo. Other plants that provide favorite food items are Chinese elms, Natal plums, birds of paradise, and roses.
Located across from the Papiano Play Park, this garden is maintained by docents and volunteers and is dedicated to the volunteer who helped establish it. Bonnie Jue was a devoted Enrichment volunteer who passed away in 2010. She started out her volunteer service in the Enrichment garden, helping grow items that aren’t available from the commissary: roses, figs, beets, dandelions, banana plant leaves, corn stalks, nasturtiums, as well as herbs such as catnip. Her enthusiasm for the garden was passionate and contagious, and she went on to play an instrumental role in cultivating and improving it, benefitting countless Zoo residents.
Some of the endangered plants on Zoo grounds are actually very familiar to us because they are being cultivated by nurseries. Golden barrel cactus, cardboard palms, and ginkgo trees are popular landscape plants in Southern California, and yet these species are all endangered in the wild, mostly due to habitat destruction. In the same way that bird and amphibian enthusiasts reduced the demand for wild-caught parrots and salamanders by learning how to successfully breed these animals in human care, plant breeders are working on propagating many endangered species for collectors. Other plants that are difficult to grow in cultivation remain rare in human care and endangered in the wild. Among these are dawn redwood trees, Chilean wine palms, and many cycad species that you can find on Zoo grounds.
The Zoo not only exhibits animals and plants from around the world but offers the opportunity to travel through time as well. On your next visit, consider pausing outside Zoo Grill for a brief temporal detour. The frondy plants at the entrance are called sago palms, and, although they do resemble palms in structure, they are actually members of one of four plant families that make up order cycadales.
The origins of these ancient plants date back to the Carboniferous Period, about 350 million years ago, a time when flowering plants were just beginning to evolve. Though they superficially resemble palm plants, cycads are more closely related to conifers such as pine trees. Some species depend on specific insect pollinators and are endangered due to pesticide use.
Often, cycad species are so rare that they have no common names and are called by the region where they are found, or by the person who discovered them. Many are vanishing in the wild because they are found only in tiny regions—some not much larger than Griffith Park. Plant collectors go to great—even illegal—lengths to obtain plants like these, buying them from poachers who steal them from their native habitat. Among the plants in the Zoo’s cycad garden are protected species that were confiscated by wildlife authorities as they were being illegally smuggled into the U.S. Others, such as sago palms (Cycas revoluta) and cardboard palms (Zamia furfuracea) are easily found at garden centers, so you can legally enjoy a blast from the prehistoric past in your own backyard!
As one of 90 Plant Rescue Centers in the nation (25 of which are zoos and aquariums), the Los Angeles Zoo is often called upon by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to care for exotic or rare plants that people have attempted to smuggle into the country. Since many countries don’t want to lose key plant species or specimens, it can be a long process to determine what will happen to confiscated samples. Our gardens can provide a temporary, viable habitat for such “rescued” plants.
Most Plant Rescue Centers focus on saving particular kinds of plants that are appropriate for their climate. The Zoo has received orchids, succulents and cacti, African bulbs, and cycads (a family of palm-like plants that includes sago palms). Confiscated plants tend to be types that are popular with collectors and are often illegally removed from wild habitat in their native lands. Once a plant is seized, the native country has 30 days to ask for the plant’s return. If that country does not claim it, the plant remains the property of USDA, held and cared for by a Plant Rescue Center. Rescued plants cannot be sold by Plant Rescue Centers, but they can be accessioned into the center’s collection or transferred to another approved facility.