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Tim Brown

Elsewhere in this issue is an obituary for Ed Maruska of the Cincinnati Zoo, in which I make mention of Maruska’s claim that one of his most significant and important moves when he first became Zoo Director was to appoint a top horticulturalist. In time the zoo became Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, underlining just how consequential this appointment was. And of course the word ‘zoo’ is an abbreviation (originally a colloquialism, but one that became the norm) for ‘zoological garden’ (or gardens in some cases). The combination of flora and fauna is the very essence of many zoos, particularly in urban or suburban locations. Indeed a German customer of mine recently opined that he loved Zoo Berlin not only for its animals but for the fact that its grounds were better kept and tended than those in the city’s parks. Readers of this publication will be well aware that zoos can be very beautiful places due to their horticulture, but this can be an aspect taken at face value with little appreciation of the expertise behind such pleasing displays (I personally admit to being guilty of this).

            Stephen Butler’s book on the horticulture and botany of the Dublin Zoo, showing how gardening has been a vital part of the regeneration of that venerable institution, will open any enthusiast’s eyes on the reality behind the landscape; and as far as I know it is the first book dedicated wholly to the horticultural aspects of a zoo. At Dublin, the regeneration of the zoo has mostly taken place over the past 25 years, even if the author – rather irritatingly – rarely refers to chronology in his account and manages to tell the story (over 365 pages) without ever mentioning the names of the zoo directors under whom he served! And, lets be honest, the names of Oosterweghel, Wilson, and Schwitzer will be those that headline any appraisal of the transformation of Dublin Zoo when historians take a look at the period.


            That apart, the accounts of complications arising from attempts to add convincing botanical authenticity to the zoo’s exhibits (or, as the author constantly calls them, ‘habitats’) are fascinating. And then there are the attempts by many of the occupants of those exhibits to eat and/or destroy the plant-life so lovingly nurtured. The dimensions to gardening in a zoo are certainly greater than those of a botanical garden where the challenge is ‘merely’ to get things to grow (yes, I know that’s simplifying things!).

            Zoos have long been recognised as places where plants might be magnificently displayed. I remember in the early 1970s an episode of the popular BBC television series Gardeners World coming from Chester Zoo. The zoos in Bristol and Paignton were also highly regarded for their horticultural/floral aspects. In Germany, coachloads of pensioners would descend on Walsrode as much (or more) for the flowers as for the amazing bird collection. In recent times many zoos have turned away from formal flower beds and herbaceous borders and towards a more naturalistic approach. Wild flowers, and even plants that some would view as weeds, add to the panoply of plants that might be encouraged in todays’ zoos, and the author describes many of these at the Dublin location.

            In all honesty, an experienced gardener may well get more out of this book than those with purely zoological interests. Butler describes a multitude of plants, but without pictures, and it does at times become rather difficult to plough through the text. I felt like a fan of heavy metal music who has been taken to a Dolly Parton concert. That said, the nuggets of information about the floral aspects of Dublin Zoo are worth the price of the book, and definitely will add to any appreciation of the zoo during an actual visit. Indeed, an insight such as this would be useful at every zoo.

            The final chapters of Gardening for Gorillas go into the zoo implications of soil and mulching (did you know that primate- and carnivore -derived fertiliser has to go into a type of ‘compost quarantine’?). The complications of these down-to-earth (literally) situations I found rather mind-blowing; not least the price of topsoil. Obviously I don’t know as much about zoos as I thought I did! The tales of Dublin Zoo’s lakes and the catch -all functions they have performed could fill a book in their own right. Finally, the very last chapter is entitled ‘Education’, and in it the author takes a more free-form look at the flora of the zoo and stories about various species. As a non-botanist, I found this aspect of the book to be the most engaging, other than those directly concerning animals. For example, we learn how Ginkgo trees survived the nuclear blast at Hiroshima, and how the Butcher’s Broom got its name.

If I were starting a zoo or held a directorship at one (we can all dream!), this book would be amongst the first I would put on my shelf – because I’d want my zoo to be a zoological garden. That this tome currently has no close bedfellow on a similar subject indicates quite a gap in the literature. (Reviewed by Tim Brown)


From Book Reviews, Issue 63 Summer 2022, Zoo Grapevine & International Zoo News, The Journal of the Independent Zoo Enthusiasts Society

Zoo Grapevine & International Zoo News

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