The zoological gardens

How does a zoo come to win a top horticultural award? Gavin McEwan investigates.

Bristol Zoo Gardens won a 'discritionary' Britain in Bloom Public Park Award - image: HW
Bristol Zoo Gardens won a 'discritionary' Britain in Bloom Public Park Award - image: HW

It calls itself Bristol Zoo Gardens, and the name is no accident. Last week the five-hectare attraction's high horticultural standards were acknowledged when the RHS presented it with a "discretionary" Britain in Bloom Public Park Award, believed to be the first for a zoo.

The award is particularly timely because the zoo, founded as much for the study of plants as animals, celebrates its 175th anniversary next year. But this latest accolade has not come out of the blue. Arguably the jewel in the crown of the city's first Britain in Bloom bid this year, the zoo has won Bristol in Bloom's "best commercial and industrial landscape" for the past 12 years.

According to Bristol in Bloom Community Association chairman Mike Crook: "Bristol is traditionally an industrial rather than tourist city. We have been working towards this for the past two years, though we've spent a minimum amount of money - it's been more of a community effort."

Association secretary Monica Whyte adds: "We bring the RHS judges to the zoo because of the excellent quality of the horticulture and the schools garden shows its role in engaging with the community. But competition is fierce."

An independent conservation charity, the zoo achieves a remarkable amount purely on the revenue from the turnstiles. But much of the credit for the gardens' high profile must go to Eddie Mole, head of horticulture at the zoo since 1996 and chair of the European Association of Zoos & Aquariums' horticulture group.

"The animals came to the fore in the late 19th century, with the garden as a setting for them, and that's still primarily what people come for. We couldn't ask £13 to see some plants," he says. "But the gardens are laid out with visitors in mind and we have to appeal to all ages. They're here for a nice day out and I like to think that the gardens are an attraction in their own right."

His diverse background includes periods at RBG Edinburgh and SASA, now Science & Advice for Scottish Agriculture. "Zoo horticulture has so many different elements - conservation, science, botany - and so it's good to have a broad background," he says. "And I'm very lucky to work in one that values amenity planting too."

The zoo's historic commitment to horticulture can be seen in the impressive range of mature native and exotic trees that give stature to the site, from monkey puzzles and Kashmir cypress to ornamental Acers and a Cornus controversa 'Variegata' listed as a UK champion.

More recently, ornamental planting has been consolidated around the main public walkways. Even well into autumn, vivid, three-dimensional displays including fuchsia standards, Canna and Dahlia still make a striking impression.

"I have a relatively free hand within the constraints of the job and we are lucky with the climate here," says Mole. "But you can't get too precious about what you have already planted."

In contrast to human-populated areas, he says: "We try to keep the animal enclosures looking natural. We couldn't grow plants from many of the areas where the animals originate, though we have managed some South American plants to go with those animals." In the Seal & Penguin Coasts area, for example: "We grow things that look coastal, like Lundy cabbage, even if they're not true South African natives," he says.

The zoo owns a feeder nursery on the edge of the city that supplies around five per cent of the zoo's fodder needs. "We concentrate on things that are expensive or difficult to buy," says Mole. Clover, chickweed, nasturtiums, dandelions and sunflowers provide enrichment for a range of animals, while reptiles benefit from being fed chicory and gorillas are "mad about basil", explains horticultural manager Mike Adams.

The nursery also grows plants for ornamental effect. "It's great to have tall stuff that you can put straight into a new display," says Mole, adding that for the butterfly house, "a high rate of attrition" means plants need regular replacing. But plants past their best are not returned to the nursery. "We have nearly every pest and disease under the sun in the zoo, so we have a policy of not bringing plants back," he explains.

The nursery also furnishes a range of plant-related events at the zoo. Coffee, papyrus and cotton plants help tell the story of everyday commodities, while carnivorous plants such as sundews and pitcher plants are a lesson in themselves. The nursery even grows Japanese knotweed under licence for its "plant invaders" events.

Next year, the zoo will again make an event of Plant Conservation Day on 18 May, followed by the International Day of Biodiversity on 22 May. "It's an ideal opportunity for zoos and we are trying to put a bit of marketing around it," says Mole.

In the past, he adds: "There wasn't much connection made between the animals and plants." This has been rectified with permanent exhibits such as "Smarty Plants", which covers topics like "plants with bodyguards", explaining how plants and animals make defensive use of each other. "We try to keep it interactive and fun. We don't want to just preach to people," Mole explains.

A purpose-built education centre hosts around 37,000 school children a year and is also used by the city's Filton College to deliver horticultural courses as well as a foundation degree in integrated wildlife conservation.

The zoo also has a wider role in both animal and plant conservation, sponsoring projects in Cameroon and the Philippines. "Most of the zoo's animals are connected with this, which is why there are no giraffes, elephants and rhinos," Mole explains.

Closer to home, in the nearby Avon Gorge & Downs, a site of special scientific interest, the zoo sponsors a biodiversity officer. Its efforts were rewarded in September with the Sutton Seeds Cup for conservation work. It has also propagated 400 rare greater water parsnip plants that were reintroduced to the Somerset Levels last year.

The zoo's nursery also holds the National Collection of Hedichium and Caryopteris. Displaying these to better effect will form part of the first stage of a ten-year landscaping programme starting this winter. The zoo also has altogether grander plans for a National Wildlife Conservation Park on land it owns around the nursery. But Mole admits that work on this is "still some way off".


Turtle Maze - Made of live willow bordered with wild flowers, this play activity teaches children about evolution. It was a finalist in the Best Playscheme category of HW's Landscape and Amenity Awards last year.

Edible Garden - The winners of a competition among 70 local schools planted up their design for this new feature in March. "Some misunderstood it and planned it for growing food for the animals," says head of horticulture Eddie Mole.

Butterfly House - Opened two years ago, this heated section places tropical butterflies amid suitably exotic plants. A neighbouring nectar garden demonstrates how to support native butterflies at home.

Herbaceous border - Worthy of any heritage garden, this was singled out for praise by the Bristol in Bloom judges. "It will look good through to the first frost," according to Mole.

Gorilla Island - This is home to six western lowland gorillas and predates a similar installation in London Zoo by nine years. The area is planted up with a "biodiverse mixture of plants", says Mole - partly as a food source for the gorillas.

Monkey Jungle - This puts visitors in among two threatened lemur species. "We plant about 100 silver birch and hazel for them each year," says Mole. "But you have to be careful with any that might be poisonous."

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