Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



Where Flora Meets Fauna

Sidebar: An Inside Job

Zoo horticulture doesn’t stop at the door. Vegetation abounds inside the Small Mammal House, Reptile Discovery Center, Amazonia, and other interior spaces. Looking after it is the duty of horticulturist Preston Burke. Daily he confronts the challenges of maintaining naturalistic environments that can withstand the enthusiasm of diggers (armadillos and rock hyraxes), chewers (tortoises and rock cavies), and shredders (meerkats). In fact, Burke describes the cute and popular meerkats as “little hellions” that “like to rip and roar.”

Preston Burke tends the Zoo's interior horticulture displays. (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)

To meet the twin needs of constructing attractive exhibits that also simulate and support habitat, Burke uses dried grasses and logs and a host of common houseplants, such as aspidistras, philodendrons, ferns, and ficuses.

For heavier animals (such as the world’s largest snake, the 550-pound green anaconda) or for particularly long animals (such as the 18-foot Burmese python) Burke turns to bamboo, palms, and vines. He also deploys plenty of birds-of-paradise and bromeliads.
“Many of our animals are from the South American rainforest,” he explains. “Bromeliads are common there and inexpensive here.”

And always the animal tales highlight the day. “I was in the Small Mammal House pruning the ficus tree, “Burke recalls. “I came down off the ladder to fetch something, and when I came back, two lemurs were sitting on top of my ladder. Finally one of the keepers came and took them off. Now I use a long pole with a pair of loppers on the top.”


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Smithsonian Zoogoer 39(4) 2010. Copyright 2010 Friends of the National Zoo. All rights reserved.