Campers Give Elephants the Gift of Grub Through Beautiful Browse Bouquets

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.


iNaturalist at the Houston Zoo

Ever see some interesting wildlife at the zoo? That sounds like a funny question but, I’m not talking about the Zoo’s animal collection.  What native wildlife have you seen as you go through the zoo?  Birds, butterflies, bees and other visiting animals just passing through?  What about interesting plants growing on Zoo grounds?

There is now an iNaturalist project called Native Wildlife at the Houston Zoo. Photographs were first uploaded by our Collegiate Conservation Program to start the  guide to native wildlife as you enjoy the zoo.

The Collegiate Conservation Program at the Houston Zoo is a 10 week intern program generously sponsored by ExxonMobil. The program focuses on two important aspects of conservation – saving animals in the wild and sharing the conservation message.  The program participants must be currently enrolled undergrad students and commit to 30-35 hours weekly for the 10 weeks of the program.  The interns work with various regional conservation partners around the city learning from the experts about what they do to help save wildlife.  They also spend time on zoo grounds handling animals and sharing our Take Action messages with guests.  Want to learn more about our Collegiate Conservation Program?  Click here.

Now that the interns have added photos to the project, you can now not only learn from the observations already in there, you can add your own observations too!

iNaturalist is a wonderful program to engage people with nature. You can build your own life list or even a project for your area.  Not sure what something is?  Not to worry!  iNaturalist allows other members to comment on your post to help with the ID.  The iNaturalist program will choose the taxon with at least 2/3 agreement to automatically ID the post.  It is easy to navigate – your Dashboard is like your Facebook feed.  You can follow other members and see what they post.  You can access iNaturalist online or in a handy app you can download to your phone.  You can see what other things have been posted in the area by looking at observations or places, and can even search by taxon if you are looking for something specific.  The Help section of the program has an awesome FAQ guide and Getting Started guide to help you learn the ins and outs of iNaturalist too. You will find the Native Wildlife at the Houston Zoo by going to projects in the app or on line and searching on that project title.

Another added bonus to using the Native Wildlife at the Houston Zoo project is it can earn you points in the Naturally Wild Swap Shop! If you add a photo to the project, stop by the Swap Shop and show the Naturalist what you have added.  You will earn points for your posts!  Don’t know about the Naturally Wild Swap Shop?  Click here to learn more.

Texas Pollinator BioBlitz

The first ever Texas Pollinator BioBlitz will be taking place from October 7th to October 16th.  This is a statewide effort to observe and identify as many pollinators, and pollinator habitats as possible and the Houston Zoo will be participating!

How can you participate at the zoo?

Monarch Butterfly
Monarch Butterfly

First, take pictures of any pollinators you see and the plants you see them on around the zoo. Some of the pollinators you might see are butterflies, honey bees, and bumblebees.  Then, take those pictures to the Naturally Wild Swap Shop and you will be registered as a Pollinator Pal and will receive 50 points to spend in the shop.  Don’t know about the Naturally Wild Swap Shop?  Click here for more information.

Second, you can share your photos or videos of the pollinators on Instagam or iNaturalist. On Instagram, posts should include #SaveThePollinators.

Why are pollinators so important to us? They make our daily lives better in so many ways!  Without pollinators we would lose much of the fruit and vegtables we eat every day.  We would also lose chocolate,


coffee, tequila even cotton.  Our meat would be effected too because we would lose the plants that the cattle and other animals eat.


Come out to explorer your Houston Zoo and help us save pollinators.

Freeze Protection for Plants

Written by Anna Land, AZH Certified Zoo Horticulturist & Houston Zoo Horticulture Supervisor

The Horticulture department at the zoo cares for 55 acres that are covered with a very diverse collection of plants, which makes winter protection a team effort.  We’ve been keeping our eyes on the forecast and have made sure that we’re ready with frost cloth when the time comes, which looks like it may be this weekend.  With the possibility of a freeze tonight, I’ve had several staff and Zoo Members ask me the best way to protect their plants at home.  So I thought I’d share some information on freeze protection.

hibiscus rosa-sinensisHere in Houston, we’re able to grow many tropical plants which have not evolved to deal with freezing temperatures.  For them, when temperatures get down to freezing, ice crystals will form in the cells within the leaf.  These crystals pierce the cell walls of the plant, as the temperatures rise and the ice melts, holes are left in the cell walls causing the fluid to leak.  This results in the mushy tissue you see after temperatures warm up.

To prevent this, you want to keep the temperature around the plant above freezing.  There are several methods that can be used, but the easiest way to do this is to make the radiant heat coming from the ground work for you.  Properly covering a plant with frost cloth or a sheet* will trap that radiant heat and hold it around the plant, keeping it above freezing in most cases. Extended freezes or extreme cold may require additional methods to be used, but when temperatures stay around 32⁰F during overnight hours, covering is sufficient.  To properly trap the heat you must bring whatever covering you’re using all the way to the ground and secure it so that you don’t have cold wind blowing through and pushing warmer air out.  This can be done with rocks, stakes, turf staples, or even toys the kids left in the yard… whatever is small enough to move and heavy enough to withstand wind.   Potted plants can be covered in the same way, moved into a garage or covered area, or even moving them up against the house and giving them a good watering will help.

Driving around town over the years I have seen many trees wrapped like lollypops, this does not trap radiant heat and doesn’t do much for your tree other than turn it into yard art.  If you have a newly planted tree that the crazy weather has caused to start pushing out new leaves and you want to protect them, you can wrap your tree like that, but you will need to provide a heat source inside that covering.  An example would be outdoor rated incandescent tree lights, but make sure you follow all recommended safety guidelines; you don’t want to turn your tree into a candle.

freeze protection

A quick note about frost cloth vs. sheets:  Frost cloth was originally designed for production agriculture, so it’s designed to trap the heat and allow light through and won’t absorb water. This allowed those growers to cover their plants and leave them covered, saving time and labor costs.  This means that if you’re using frost cloth and the forecast calls for multiple nights with freezing temperatures, you can leave your plants covered for extended periods of time.  On the other hand, if you are using sheets to cover your plants, you will need to uncover them during the day once temperatures have risen above freezing.  There are a couple of dangers with leaving sheets over plants for extended periods of time: 1) the plant may not get enough sun light; 2) if the sheet gets wet it could provide conditions for fungal/pest problems; or 3) it could get warm enough underneath to encourage the plant to start growing at the wrong time.

*I don’t recommend using plastic sheeting unless it’s on some sort of framework preventing it from touching the plant.  Laying it directly on a plant can still allow freeze damage and if not removed as temperatures warm, can  “cook” your plant as it accumulates the heat from the sun.

Corpse Flower “Reek”

Update 7/28/15
reek down

Unfortunately, we came in this morning to discover that Reek has suffered from our recent extreme Texas heat. In its native habitat, the corpse flower does not experience temperatures much above 90 degrees. While the plant has not perished, the bloom has been lost this time around.

Backstory on Reek  7/26/15
We have a corpse flower at the Zoo! Our horticulture team has appropriately named the flower known for its odor, Reek. We are now closely monitoring this incredible plant species and expect the pungent bloom to appear in the coming weeks. It’s impossible to know exactly when the corpse flower will begin blooming, but we’re keeping a watchful eye and we’ll be sure to let everyone know when the “magic” begins. Take a look at the progress so far!

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What the heck is a corpse flower?!

Native to the rainforests of Sumatra, Indonesia, the corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanium) is the largest inflorescence in the world. Not technically a flower by itself, the cluster of flowers are located on the large, misshaped stalk seen emerging from the center of the display. It takes about 7-10 years for the plant to bloom for the first time and the bloom lasts only 24-48 hours.

 Amorphophallus titanium gets the common name, corpse flower, from the odor it releases which is reminiscent of the smell of decomposing mammals (yum). During flowering, the plant warms up to 96-100⁰F to help carry the smell for up to a half mile. The corpse flower has evolved to exude this smell in order to attract flies and carrion beetles, which act as pollinators for the plant.

These plants are at risk in their native habitat due to deforestation which is also endangering many animal species, including the rhinoceros hornbill, an important seed distributor for this plant as well as many others.

Pollinator Pals in the Naturally Wild Swap Shop

Meet the first of the Houston Zoo’s Pollinator Pals!

 Ollie, Drake and Ginger are regular traders in the Naturally Wild Swap Shop, and now they are also Pollinator Pals! They each picked out the plant they wanted to grow and what pollinators they wanted to attract. Ollie planted hyacinth bean to attract hummingbirds, Drake planted passion flower vine to attract gulf fritillary butterflies, and Ginger planted milkweed to attract monarch butterflies.

Drake planting passion flower
Drake planting passion flower

Pollinators are extremely important to us, and they are declining. Our lives would be severely impacted by the loss of any of our pollinators. Many of the foods we eat rely on pollinators.  Fruits, vegetables, nuts, spices, cotton, alfalfa (for the cattle we rely on), honey, coffee, agave, chocolate and more!

Ginger gives a thumbs up for her milkweed seeds
Ginger gives a thumbs up for her milkweed seeds

How does one become a Pollinator Pal? Plant a pollinator garden! It can be as small as a potted plant or as large as a full scale garden. Once your garden is planted, take some pictures and bring a report about it to the Swap Shop to earn points. Then as

Check out Ollie's hyacinth bean seeds
Check out Ollie’s hyacinth bean seeds

your garden grows and attracts pollinators, bring in reports on what you have seen and how the garden is doing. Your points can then be spent in the Swap Shop for some amazing natural items.

Learn more about the Naturally Wild Swap Shop!

Carnivorous Plant Garden Opens May 16

We all know that the Houston Zoo has lots of carnivores, right?   Lions, tigers, bears, foxes and many more. But, did you know that even some of the plants on grounds are carnivorous?

The Zoo’s amazing Horticulture Department is opening a new carnivorous plant garden! The grand


opening will be May 16. This wonderful garden is generously underwritten by Pet Flytraps (

Carnivorous plants all have a few things in common. They all capture and kill prey. They all have a mechanism to facilitate digestion of prey. And, they all derive significant benefit from nutrients from the prey. They often grow in swamp or bog areas, and many are native to the United States. One of the most popular and well known carnivorous plants, the Venus Flytrap, is found in boggy areas in North and South Carolina.

Venus Flytrap
Venus Flytrap

There are actually 6 orders, 9 families and 595 species of carnivorous plants. It’s not hard to figure out what their benefit for humans is – pest control. Some of these important plants are endangered. You never want to take them from the wild, and when buying one, be sure it is from a reputable vendor. That is crucial information because these plants are an indicator species. That means that if there is something wrong in the habitat they grow in, they will show the effects first.

One question many have about these plants is – how can insects pollinate these plants when they eat insects? Seems like a contradiction, doesn’t it? The flowers of these plants usually grow on a stalk that reaches well above the traps. That way, the pollinators, often bees or flies, aren’t caught in the trap and eaten. You can learn more about pollinators during Pollinator Days at the Houston Zoo on June

Pitcher Plant
Pitcher Plant


Some of the plants you will be able to see in the garden include Venus Flytraps, Sundews, Butterworts, both native and tropical Pitcher Plants and more.   Members of our Horticulture Team will be available at the carnivorous plant garden from 10AM to 3PM on the 16th so that you can learn even more.



Pollinators and The Naturally Wild Swap Shop

Pollinators – what are they and why are they important?

A pollinator is an animal that helps a flowering plant complete its life-cycle by picking up pollen from one flower and moving

A gecko about to pollinate a tropical flower
A gecko about to pollinate a tropical flower

it to another of the same type.  This fertilizes the plant, allowing it to form seeds for the next generation.

Why does that matter to us?

Without plants being pollinated, we would loose at least 30% of ALL the food we eat.  Items such as fruit, veggies, nuts, spices, coffee, tequila and chocolate.  Beef and dairy products would be affected too because bees pollinate the alfalfa the cattle eat.  Even our clothes would suffer – cotton plants rely on pollinators too!

Mexican Long-tongued bat pollinating an agave blossom
Mexican Long-tongued bat pollinating an agave blossom

Pollinators include bees, bats, birds, small mammals, lizards and even a lemur.

Now, the question is: How can you help our pollinators and how does the Swap Shop tie in?

First….You can plant a pollinator garden of your own!  It can be anything from potted plants on a patio or balcony to a full size flower bed.

Next….Bring pictures, drawings, or reports about your pollinator garden to the Swap Shop for points!  Eligible traders will get points for both items showing the initial garden set up, as well as on going reports on wildlife seen in the garden.  And the trader will be recorded in the Swap Shop as a Pollinator Pal.

Some of the host plants that do well in our area include Milkweed, Bee Balm, Dutchman’s Pipe Vine, Mexican Bauhinia and Porter Weed.

The Red-bellied lemur pollinates the flowers of the traveler's palm
The Red-bellied lemur pollinates the flowers of the traveler’s palm

Need information about how to build a pollinator garden?  Many sites on line have great information.  Those include, but are not limited to, US Forest Service, US Fish & Wildlife, Texas Parks and Wildlife, Native Plant Society of Houston or The Xerces Society.

Join us at the Houston Zoo on June 20-21 as we celebrate Pollinator Day and learn more.

Don’t know about the Naturally Wild Swap Shop?  Click here for more information.

The oldest living thing at the Houston Zoo

There are many living things within the boundaries of the Houston Zoo. Can you guess what the oldest living thing here is? The first thing a lot of people think of is perhaps a parrot, or a tortoise. There are days that the zookeepers work so hard they may feel like they are the oldest thing in the zoo.  But all of those answers are wrong.

Live_Oak-0020-7303Near the jaguar exhibit and Wortham World of Primates is a magnificent live oak tree. It is cared for by our wonderful Horticulture Department with love and patience, and it pre-dates any other living thing in the zoo. Here are some of the things that have happened while it was growing into the amazing tree it is today:

While not an exact measurement of age, some formulas estimate that the tree was germinated in approximately 1721, making it about 293 years old. Settlers were just beginning to come to the area, and there was a lot of unrest with the Native Americans living here.

The construction of a church in San Antonio that would later be known as the Alamo was begun in 1744. The tree was already 23 years old.

In 1832, the Allen Brothers began to buy land in the area.  In 1836, they founded Houston, and Sam Houston captured Santa Anna that same year. The tree was now approximately 115 years old.

In 1845, Texas became the 28th state. Our tree had already been here for 124 years.Live_Oak-0016-7290

When the infamous Hurricane of 1900 hit the Texas coast, Galveston was devastated and many lives were lost. The tree was then approximately 179 years old and survived the remnants of the storm that moved inland.

The tree saw the first automobile arrive in Houston in 1901, and the Houston Ship Channel completion in 1914. When the tree was approximately 214 years old, the first air service was brought to Houston with Braniff Airlines.

The Houston Zoo was started in 1914, and moved to Hermann Park in 1922. The tree was approximately 201 years old when the zoo began to grow up around it.

Some of the zoo staff fondly refers to the tree as “Abuelo” (Grandfather).  Rather aptly named, since Live_Oak-0017-7299this tree has seen staff come and go, and yet it still stands. It has seen battles, storms, construction and a lot of change and yet, still it stands.

Next time you come to the zoo, stop for a moment and consider our old Grandfather, and everything this tree has seen.

Flamingo Flowers, Tapeworm Plants, and Toad Lilies?!

Those snazzy LEGO® animals aren’t the only thing that you’ll marvel at when you visit Animals Assembled: A Safari Built with LEGO Bricks, Presented by Fiesta. When you visit, be sure to take a look at the plants that surround them, because they sure do tell a story.

The story of these incredible plants came straight from the head of the Zoo’s own talented Horticulture Manager, Joe Williams. This guy has more plant knowledge than you could ever imagine, and when he was asked to create the exhibit where the LEGO animals would live, he jumped at the chance.

The plants in the penguin exhibit mimic snow drifts and the colors make it seem chilly, like their habitat in the wild.

Joe’s first move was to create a beautiful, lush, shaded pathway, making sure you don’t see too much too soon.

“One of the most important things about designing an exhibit like this is to make sure there’s a surprise around every corner. You don’t want to see everything at once. So we made a path that snakes around and leads you through an adventure. We used big screens of bamboo and other large plants to hide the animal around the corner so you don’t know what’s next.”

Flamingo flowers sit right next to the flamingo pond.

And if you look carefully at each LEGO animal’s surroundings, you’ll notice something else: many of the plants surrounding them make the animal seem like it’s in its natural habitat.

The penguins are flanked by Huntington Carpet Rosemary, which is low to the ground and drifts like snow. The tiger slinks through a shaded forest area near the Variegated Dianella, which mimics its stripes, just like plants help them camouflage in the wild. The Cardamon Ginger next to the gorilla mom and baby is just like what they eat in nature, and many zoos actually feed a similar plant to gorillas to help prevent heart disease!

Gorilla mom and baby with Cardamon Ginger (right middle plant)

What’s more, and you’d only know this if you were a plant buff, many of these plants have names similar to the LEGO animal that lives by them. The Flamingo Flower sits right at the base of the pond where the…you guessed it…flamingos are standing. “Under the Sea” Coleus sits in brightly-colored pots at the base of the aquarium featuring a LEGO octopus, crabs, stingray, and countless fish. And, because you knew Joe couldn’t stop there, the Stingray Elephant Ear also springs up from the ground around the aquarium.

Yep, that’s a Stingray Elephant Ear next to the Aquarium.

Now that you’re an Animals Assembled insider, check out this tip: at the very end of the path, just when you think you’re done, look to your right to see a short tree with spiky branches. You’re looking at one of the most endangered trees in the world, the Wollemi Pine, which is from New Zealand and dates back to the time of the dinosaurs!

Wollemi Pine: one of the most endangered plants in the world.

To learn more about Animals Assembled: A Safari Built with LEGO Bricks, Presented by Fiesta, visit

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