Diggin' In: Zoos are wild about plants as well as animals

September 15, 2014

The Virginia Zoo is all about animals — and, increasingly, all about plants.

There are 10 themed gardens that make up the zoo’s 53-acre experience. There’s the White Garden with its cooling ambiance of pale flowers. There’s the fiery explosion of the Tropical Garden with its rain forest-like foliage. And, there’s the Organic Rose Garden where oldies and newbies flourish with only natural ingredients.

Brian Francis, the new curator of horticulture at the 100-year-old zoo in Norfolk, Va., hopes to enhance the gardens even more. He wants to add denser plantings to the animal habitats so you feel immersed in the country or continent; he also plans to create a database of plants and envisions future plant sales for the public.

"I’m really hoping to take it to a fresh and exciting new level that hasn’t been seen here before," he says.

"The zoo currently has many significant plants that are not common, and I would like to add, introduce and try more, as well as keep the collections we already have."

Francis comes to the zoo from Riverbanks Zoo & Botanical Garden in Columbia, S.C., where he spent more than 10 years working on the horticulture staff and lastly as the horticultural design coordinator. 

"Since Riverbanks Zoo & Gardens are separated geographically, I was able to use my more artistic and creative side to get the ‘wilder’ look that was required on the zoo side, but then dress it up to accommodate the elegant and detail-oriented style of the botanical gardens," he says.

Previously, he worked as a landscape designer for Earth Graphics where he designed landscapes for residential and commercial, and was also a manager for an interior plantscape company where he designed and maintained interior plantings for commercial accounts.

He’s also an artist, and has been featured in galleries in Columbia. Originally from Indianapolis, he has a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture from Purdue University, and an associate’s degree in commercial art and design.

Francis has only been at the zoo since January, but he’s already found his favorite spot – the Tropical Garden in front of the Asia exhibit where he likes the big leaf textures and vivid colors.

He’s proud of the renovated zoo barnyard which recently reopened with dwarf Nigerian goats. Guests can go in the animal yard and pet the goals, and explore a vegetable garden. There’s also a new wellness campus which includes the zoo’s veterinary hospital and commissary where nutrition for people and animals will be emphasized.

"The horticulture department will have an orchard and several gardens for growing consumables designed for animals and humans for educational purposes," he says.

His favorite plants include Edgeworthia chrysantha, which blooms fragrantly in February; Alocasia and Colocasia, which are commonly known as elephant ears; any of the ornamental grasses; Osmanthus fragrans, or tea olive, which is an evergreen shrub great for screening and has an incredible clean fragrance, and blooms twice a year.

His personal gardening style is "free and easy," which works well in a zoo setting.

"In general, most zoos I have been to in recent years have become more horticulturally significant than ever before," he says.

"It's great to see more plants in zoos. They provide a backdrop for the animals, obviously, but it makes the visitors feel like they're actually in a jungle setting, or a real desert, or the high cliffs of some Asian mountain range.

"Plant and garden areas add to the entire zoo experience. After all, if it weren’t for plants, there wouldn’t be any animals."



McClatchy-Tribune Information Services