Garden Walks at the Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens

Jacksonville Zoo and GardensYou may have heard that the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. What you may not know is that the “and Gardens” part of the Jacksonville Zoo’s name was added in 2004. This represents a mini-milestone for Jacksonville’s own botanical gardens – a 10th birthday within the grander centennial celebration.

In recent years I have gone on quite a few Saturday Garden Walks at the zoo. These botanical adventures are led by knowledgeable horticulture department employees who talk about plants and other points of interest based on the theme of that day’s walk. Some of this year’s topics have included gardening in winter, xeric gardens, and enjoying the scents in the spring garden. I always learn something new each time I participate.

ZOO_Lily-Pond-at-Savanna-BlWhat a treat I had recently when I took a garden walk with Bob Chabot, Director of Horticulture and Facilities! Chabot and his staff have had a direct hand in selecting and installing nearly all of the plants in the amazing botanical gardens that co-exist with the equally amazing animal exhibits. His knowledge about the gardens was evident, and his pride and enthusiasm were infectious. This garden tour was like having Walt Disney show you around his little amusement park in Orlando! As we strolled along the shady paths filled with school children and families enjoying the beautiful day, Chabot talked about how the gardens have evolved, both just before and after he joined the zoo in 2005. I didn’t realize that there is a master plan for the expansion of the gardens just as there is for the zoo.
The master garden plan was drawn up by landscape architect Cindy Tyler of Marshall, Tyler, and Rausch in Pittsburgh, PA. After MTR disbanded, Tyler formed Terra Design Studios, also based in Pittsburgh. Chabot and his staff follow the plan, consulting with Tyler as necessary, but they have the final say on what plants are installed and where. The first phase of the plan was implemented between 2004 and 2009. Built in 2004, the Rivers of Color Garden lines the main path through the zoo, providing a linear garden that leads you from one animal exhibit to the next. It starts just inside the zoo entrance and winds south to the Trout River, then eastward, ending at the Asian Bamboo Gardens where you’ll find the komodo dragons and, nearby, the new Land of the Tiger exhibit. Also key to the master plan are the “pocket gardens” that are installed throughout the zoo. These formal gardens feature many plants you might find in the continents represented by the adjoining animal exhibit. Established in 2005, the Savanna Blooms Garden was the first pocket garden. Nestled among the areas housing African animals like rhinoceros, elephants and giraffes, its oasis-like setting, complete with lily pond, provides a lovely area to sit and enjoy the breezes amid a riot of color.

ZOO_Gardens-at-Trout-River-Further down the main path are the Post to Post Links II error: No post found with slug "Gardens at Trout River Plaza", which opened in 2007. This pocket garden features tall columns topped by huge bowls spilling over with trailing and flowering plants. The courtyard setting houses a beautiful bronze fountain surrounded by a colorful pebble mosaic. Even though this isn’t considered a play area, it’s a hit with parents who wish to sit for a few minutes to enjoy looking at the roses, sedum, and mixed perennials while their ZOO_Moon-Gate-to-Asian-Gardchildren splash their hands in the water at the fountain’s edge.

The Asian Bamboo Garden opened in 2009, providing zoo visitors with a pocket garden reminiscent of the beautiful formal gardens found throughout Asia. The circular arched entry, called a Moon Gate, frames koi and lotus ponds surrounded by Japanese maples and flowering shrubs. Phase two of the master plan includes a 12-acre botanical garden located along the Trout River. There will be a visitor center, a tropical conservatory, and an orangery. There is no target date set for this expansion, but if it is executed as beautifully as phase one was, we Garden Walkers are in for a treat!


About Aline Clement

Aline Clement is a master gardener with the Duval County Extension Service and the University of Florida/IFAS.