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Jane Powers

Stephen Butler has been an important figure in the gardening community for decades. His knowledge is encyclopeadic, fuelled by a robust curiosity that drives him to investigate the world of plants and horticulture from many angles. In this book, he discusses with relish the practical, the scientific, the historic and — especially — the idiosyncratic aspects of his work. 


In his thirty-seven years at Dublin Zoo, as head gardener and curator of horticulture, Stephen helped to transform the landscape radically. His tenure coincided with the hatching of a new masterplan for the zoo, where animal welfare became paramount and there was enough funding to develop new naturalistic environments. During his time, the place metamorphosed from a spartan residence for animals into an exciting and beautiful sanctuary. The sterile Victorian pens and the largely flat and barren landscape have been replaced by spacious habitats and a varied terrain of hills, water, winding paths and lush vegetation. 


The planting for the different areas is geographically-themed, so that it matches the look and spirit of the animals’ various homelands. Visitors feel that they are on a voyage of discovery. On the ‘Kaziranga Forest Trial’, for example, you wend your way along a sinuous path carved through a jungle of bamboo, magnolia and other luxuriant greenery. Turn corner after corner and eventually you are rewarded by the sight of Asian elephants sunbathing, foraging and frolicking. Elsewhere, you glimpse gorillas across a swampy body of water, a habitat modelled on a rainforest clearing in the Republic of Congo. In the Irish climate, the planting must be pseudo-equatorial rather than the real thing, but jumbo leaves (including phormiums, catalpa, ligularia, gunnera and arum lily) give the right impression of exuberant abundance. The ‘African Savanna’, where rhinos, giraffes, zebras, oryx and ostriches roam, is all heat and dust, with spare-looking, drought-tolerant plants. On the raised perimeter, safe from nibbling animals, Australian acacias and other savanna-style plants grow.  


Gardening at a zoo presents unique challenges, as Stephen so eloquently describes in this book. Certain plants have to fill so many roles that they are heroic multitaskers. For instance, those that are situated within the animal areas must be sturdy, resilient species that offer shelter and privacy while also doing no harm through poisons or other hazards. If they can offer browsing opportunities without being obliterated, a trunk to climb, or some other kind of interest, all the better. Finding species that can satisfy all these criteria is a painstaking job, one for an expert plantsman with an enquiring mind and a vast knowledge. Stephen Butler possesses these characteristics. 


He has another attribute that makes the difference between a workaday planting scheme and one that sings its heart out. He loves plants. He glories in their individual personalities, their relationships with each other and the animal kingdom, their history, their folklore and — so importantly — their aesthetic qualities. The many plant communities that he has designed throughout the zoo perform their duties admirably for the animals and their habitats, while also wowing humans. The excitement is mighty when you come upon a plantation of giant Himalayan lilies, each one a stout three-metre stem hung with multiple, outsize flowers; or the two-metre, red-rocket inflorescence of the biennial Echium wildpretii, endemic to the Canary Islands; or a sprinkling of broad-leaved helleborine, a native Irish orchid. 


Stephen’s passion for all manner of plants has led to a tremendously varied and interesting landscape. The numerous, healthy ecosystems in the thirty-hectare plot now provide a haven for an abundance of wildlife. The diversity in the zoo is greater than that of the surrounding Phoenix Park, Europe’s largest enclosed public park in a capital city. 


The adventure of greening the zoo, with all its tears and triumphs, is recounted here and threaded through with invaluable lessons. Stephen shares his expertise freely and entertainingly. Soil compaction has never been so interesting, nor the range of mulch-dwelling fungi. He includes a helpful section on botany, where sticklers for accuracy will be thrilled to discover that the blackberry is not a berry but an aggregate fruit composed of many drupelets. A banana, meanwhile, is a berry.  This last gem is just one of the many that I will cherish in this treasury of knowledge.

Garden and Nature Writer

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