June 24, 2008

Zoo Gardener Reveals the Secret Life of Plants

Paignton Probus Club members heard a talk by Catherine Mortimer, head gardener at Paignton Zoo, who spoke about the many types of plants housed at the botanical garden which provides the setting for Paignton's world famous. award-winning zoo.

Plants are fundamental to the atmosphere and this is one of the reasons that Paignton Zoo is not just a zoological garden but also a botanical garden with many exotic species of flora. The warm climate in South West England allows the zoo to grow many tender plants outdoors as part of the exhibits. Palms, bananas and citrus are amongst the plants which contribute to the tropical feel of the zoo.

Visitors to the zoo usually come to see the animals and often do not notice that the environment is a created landscape with plants carefully selected to mimic the natural habitat types of the animals within it. The gardens of Paignton Zoo consist of both mature shrubberies and new areas developed over the past ten years. The new plantings have been mainly designed to re-create the major habitat types from around the world.

Native plants have been used in some areas to enhance the natural ambience whereas in others, exotic species have created variation within the habitat themes. Some of the rarest plants in the world are grown in the gardens.

Catherine, who has been head gardener at the zoo for three years, and her team of seven gardeners has recently cultivated giant water lilies for the zoo's latest attraction, the Crocodile Swamp with its Nile crocodiles, Cuban crocodiles and Australian salt-water crocodiles.

The giant waterlily, Victoria Cruziana, comes from the upper reaches of the Amazon in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay and has leaves which are two metres in diameter with up-turned edges. Underneath, the leaves are purple and covered with a peach-like fuzz and razor-sharp teeth. Catherine, said: "This is a magnificent plant, it is truly iconic. Normally, one would grow them as annuals and sow in January or February. However, we wanted a plant of reasonable size for when we opened the exhibit in April, so I have experimented by sowing earlier and trying to boost the plants on."

The seeds came from Oxford Botanic Gardens and were planted in October last year. They were grown in an insulated heated 1,000 litre galvanised tank. Catherine watched the progress of these Amazonian giants very carefully. "You plant a small seed and end up with huge lily pads that can support the weight of a person," she said.

The plant collections at the zoo contain around 5,000 specimens representing about 2,500 different plants. Records of all these plants are held on a computer database which holds information on plant origin, identification and cultivation. This database is available on the Zoo's website www.paigntonzoo.org.uk which also has comprehensive information about the zoo and its activities

The zoo's nursery also supports plant and animal conservation work and the scientific research of students. It holds many events and functions during the year.

A notable forthcoming event is the gardens open evening which is to be held on Thursday, July 3.

Those attending will be taken on a 'green finger' adventure exploring the gardens and discovering what plants survive in a crocodile swamp. Wine and appetisers will be served and the zoo's panel of experts will be on hand for a Gardens Question Time. Telephone 01803 697500 for tickets.

The members of Paignton Probus demonstrated their appreciation of this informative talk which was beautifully illustrated with superb colour slides. The traditional vote of thanks was given by the club's social secretary, Alf Warren.

The club's new season opens on Wednesday, September 17.

The Paignton Probus Club meets every Wednesday, from mid September to the end of May, at the Redcliff Hotel from 10am to mid- day and any retired professional or businessman interested in attending or joining can ring the secretary, Bob Life, on 01803 522501 or chairman, Ken Temple, on 01803 842507.

(c) 2008 Herald Express (Torquay UK). Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.