Over the first 100 years of San Diego Zoo Global’s existence, an international botanical treasure sprouted and spread. In 1919, Zoo founder Dr. Harry Wegeforth rode his Arabian horse around the arid, barren, and hilly acreage set aside for the future Zoo, using his walking cane to plant tree seeds as he went. Acacia, pepper, and eucalyptus were some of the first trees planted. During the 1920s and 1930s, the Zoo received many gifts of plants from wealthy families.
During the 1940s, the Zoo cultivated its own Victory Gardens to provide vegetables for its growing collection of animals. Beginning in the 1980s, plants at the Zoo became more than just beautiful and educational—they were increasingly used to provide species-appropriate food for the animals (including eucalyptus for koalas, acacia for giraffes, and Eugenia for primates) and structures for exhibits, whenever possible. In addition, the Browse Team cuts, prepares, and ships ficus and eucalyptus to zoos across the nation that are unable to grow their own.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the organization’s botanical efforts spread to Escondido and the development of the Wild Animal Park (now the San Diego Zoo Safari Park). In addition to landscaping for comfort and enjoyment of both animal and human visitors, a knoll once covered with sumac and chaparral underwent a tree-lined transformation to become the Nicholas T. Mirov Conifer Arboretum. Named after the noted plant physiologist and biochemist, the five-acre arboretum’s goals were the acquisition, propagation, and exhibition of conifer trees from around the world, including rare and endangered species.
An Old World Succulent Garden, Baja Garden, and Nativescapes Garden soon filled another hillside, thanks to the energy of volunteers from local horticultural clubs. Partnerships with these types of organizations allow the Park to share the beauty and wonder of bonsai creations and epiphyllums with millions of guests each year.
In 1993, the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park collections were accredited by the American Association of Museums. This was cause for jubilation, since they were only the sixth and seventh zoos to ever receie this recognition. A great deal of work went into preparing for the accreditation process for each of San Diego Zoo Global’s designated collections. Every plant in the designated collections was identified, mapped, and accessioned. It was a gargantuan task. Each plant received a record including its accession number and botanical name, the date it was acquired and the source, and its location on grounds.
The Zoo’s accredited collections are of acacia, aloe, bamboo, cycads, erythrina, ficus, orchids, and palms. In addition, the grounds are home to a number of geographical and developing collections that are not formally accredited, such as hibiscus, pachyforms, and flora of Hawaii, Australia, Africa, and Madagascar.
The Safari Park’s accredited collections include the Baja Garden, Nativescapes Garden, and Conifer Arboretum. The Park also hosts the Bonsai Pavilion, with an outstanding collection of bonsai plants maintained by volunteers from San Diego Bonsai Club and San Pu Kai Bonsai Club.