The following post was written by Jesus Campos, a Horticulture Team Lead at the Houston Zoo.
The horticulture department is constantly trying to find new and interactive ways to educate the public about nature and the important role plants play. Our department is quiet and not the first thing most people think of when they think of a zoo job. Most days we work early hours and behind the scenes to keep the zoo beautiful. Many people don’t realize how many different skill sets are part of the field of zoo horticulture. On staff, we have an arborist, tree climbers, a green house manager, color beds creatives, heavy machinery operators, a plant registrar, irrigation specialists, and browse specialists.
Browse is a form of enrichment that most of our animals receive several days a week. Browse includes edible nontoxic plants and flowers that are grown on zoo grounds and provide additional nutrition and enrichment for the animals. The idea for a browse bouquet class came to us after our browse specialist Maria showed off her flower arrangement skills for a special event. We realized people would love to see bouquets the animals can eat and play with. We presented the idea to Nicholas in the Conservation Education Department and he was extremely receptive.
Recently we had the opportunity to hold a couple of Browse Bouquet classes for zoo camp kids as part of our partnership with the education department. In these classes, we had groups of kids and counselors make flower arrangements using hibiscus flowers, banana leaves, orange kumquats, and many other approved browse plants, all cut from plants we grow here at the zoo. This was a fun and interactive way to teach campers the importance of plants and how they directly affect the animals we take care of here at the zoo. After completing their bouquets, we visited the Asian elephant family where the keepers held a short presentation for us. The keepers called over the elephant family group to get a snack and the elephants greatly enjoyed it. The children stood there in awe watching as these beautiful giants ate something they had helped create!
The bouquets were a success. The kids were able to pick the flowers they wanted to use and help gather other leaves for the bouquet. The memorable moment was of course getting to interact with the elephants. We plan to continue these classes and expand upon them with other interactive activities. Hopefully this will translate well with older teens and even adults. The Houston Zoo Camp and Zoo Crew programs help lots of young people learn about the different careers paths that exist in a zoo.