August 6, 2008

Curators Branch Out to Fill Exhibit

By JACOB BENNETT Courier & Press staff writer 464-7434 or [email protected]

Inside Mesker Park Zoo's new Amazonia rain forest are 50 species of bromeliads, brilliant bloomers that adorn tree trunks, branches and even the rooftop of the research station.

There are tall trees and small plants that grow on trees, ferns that like shade, and cactuses that live in the treetops to grab the sun. Real strangler figs will soon wind their way around a concrete fig.

There are more than 3,000 plants, representing about 250 species, so far. Zoo officials spent $200,000 on plants for the entire project with $100,000 of that in the rain forest. They said they saved about $650,000 on the collection by doing a lot of the planting themselves.

"It was a pretty ambitious plant collection," said Paul Bouseman, the zoo's botanical curator. "It was kind of a hunt to find all this stuff."

Bouseman began the hunt in 2004 by sending a list to a Southeast Growers near West Palm Beach, Fla., to see what might be available. Later, he flew down and went with the grower to several nurseries to pick out exactly what he wanted.

So far, he has collected 36 species of rain forest trees, including bloodwood and ice cream bean beauty leaf, 13 species of palms and 20 species of orchids.

While some of the plants were kept in support houses at the zoo, the grower held on to the largest palms and tropical trees for a couple of years. By the time the Amazonia building was ready, some trees were 25 feet tall and four or five feet in diameter.

The larger trees, such as the kapoks and cannonballs, had to be carried with heavy equipment through temporary openings or through the garage door in the canopy area.

Misty Minar, who does grounds maintenance at the zoo, said she had to use a skid steer to back a 25-foot-tall, one-ton royal palm in through the garage door and down a slope. There were five or six other people around to help guide her and to set the plant upright and in the exhibit near the toucan.

"Driving backward, you had to turn and look back and watch the front and make sure you're not damaging an expensive tree and make sure you don't crush anybody," Minar said.

Some of the taller trees will eventually need to be pruned. There is a track on the 50-foot ceiling so workers can pull themselves along by cables and work in a harness or bosun's chair.

"I'm sure I'll get to test it out. Hopefully it'll be a couple of years," Minar said.

Zoo botanists also have been creative when fighting plant pests. They brought in lady bugs to eat aphids, nematode worms to attack citrus root weevil and small parasitic wasps to take care of scale. They used good spider mites to eat bad spider mites, Minar said, and they've ordered beetles that will eat white flies.

Temperatures can climb past 90 degrees near the enclosure's roof, but the visitor pathways are air-conditioned to be about 65 to 70 degrees.

A fog system comes on several times a day to keep the humidity between 60 percent and 70 percent. An irrigation system simulates rain twice a day, and groundskeepers walk through in the morning to water hard-to-reach plants.

"We're still getting used to having to put ladders and hoses away," Minar said. "It's been crazy, but it's been great."

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