Main site sections:
Plants section links:

Plants: San Diego Zoo Gardens

A Garden in the Heart of the City

All through the 1920s, the Zoo's founder, Dr. Harry Wegeforth, rode his horse around Zoo grounds (which were a part of Balboa Park) to decide what would go where.

In the middle of the bustling seaport metropolis of San Diego is its crown jewel, the 1,200-acre (480-hectare) green swath known as Balboa Park. Today’s Park is a cultural and horticultural oasis in the heart of a paved city containing museums, gardens, clubs, theaters, sports facilities, restaurants, fountains, hundred-year-old trees, and, the San Diego Zoo. Nestled in the northeast corner of Balboa Park, the Zoo's 100 lushly planted acres (40 hectares) have been delighting and amazing visitors ever since its founding in 1916. Not only a home for one of the finest animal collections in the world, the Zoo is also a world-class botanical garden. The approximately 700,000 plants that grace the Zoo grounds create the peaceful landscape that it is known for.

The Early Days

In 1922, the Barrett Dam made the first Zoo irrigation systems and pools possible. This view is where we currently have our duck pond and birds of prey exhibit. Note the popular Laurel Street Bridge in the background.

If you stroll through the San Diego Zoo's grounds today, or take the Skyfari aerial tram to view them from above, it’s hard to believe that most of the lush, plant-covered mesas and valleys you see were once almost barren, and that their hardpan soil was so unyielding that early Zoo staff sometimes had to use dynamite to blast holes for construction and plantings! But blast they did, because the botanical gardens were all part of the original plan. As the Zoo's founder, Dr. Harry Wegeforth, put it, “I was struck by the marvelous potential of the grounds, with their mesas and canyons, for the development into a capacious, sylvan Zoo. A luxuriant growth of trees and foliage was one of the chief features of the Zoo as I planned it in my mind’s eye.”

Dr. Wegeforth was a persistent man who wanted to have his garden filled, as much as possible, with trees and plants that hailed from the animals’ native lands. And he used all his worldwide contacts as well as his own self-financed collecting trips to bring in seeds, plants, and trees from around the world. By 1926, a decade after the Zoo had opened, Dr. Wegeforth had secured funding for the Zoo’s first horticulturist, and a year later, they had their first botanist. One of the pair’s many goals was to create nameplates for all the plants in the Zoo, so that visitors would not have to guess the identity of the unique plants they were seeing. The task of naming all the plants, as it turned out, was monumental even at that early stage in the Zoo’s history, and still continues to this day.

Horses had to haul in everything: plant and construction materials, and sometimes even dynamite to blast holes in especially difficult ground!

A World-Class Botanical Garden

Dr. Wegeforth's original vision for the Zoo’s plants has been expanded since those early days. Instead of simply planting African plants near African animal species, for example, today’s Zoo has whole bioclimes devoted to groups of plants and animals that represent particular ecological niches in nature. We have, for example, Tiger River–a simulated Asian rain forest complete with mist and numerous tropical trees, vines, and flowers to make its Asian animal inhabitants feel right at home; as well as Polar Bear Plunge, our Arctic tundra exhibit; and the brand-new Monkey Trails and Forest Tales habitat representing the tropical forests of Africa and Asia.

We suspect that today’s botanical gardens would have surpassed Dr. Harry’s wildest dreams for his Zoo. The Zoo’s plants create the perfect environment for our animal inhabitants and our human guests. In addition to landscaping, the plants serve as the Zoo’s major source for animal browse; they are an important research and educational resource for scientists and students from around the world; they provide shade for animals and visitors; and they are a crucial propagation source for over 280 endangered and threatened plant species and varieties.