By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK – Through the American Association of Museums, the Oklahoma City Zoo is celebrating 20 years as a nationally accredited botanical garden and living museum. Since April 1998, the OKC Zoo’s botanical collection has grown in size through the acquisition of new plants and gardens incorporated into several major habitat installations and expansions over the years.
The Zoo is now home to over 20 designated horticultural displays and collections including more than 100 species native to Oklahoma.
“The Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden is a place for people to connect with nature and appreciate the interconnectedness of the plant and animal collections as one,” said Lance Swearengin, horticultural curator.
“The future of the botanical garden looks bright with many exciting events on the horizon such as a new picnic grove and great lawn landscape installation and the addition of our local Master Gardeners digging in to help the botanical gardens flourish for the next twenty years.”
The OKC Zoo has a long history of botanical interests with many native trees on-grounds over 100 years old. Historic post oak groves guard the landscape as the descendants of the Zoo’s historic cross-timbers ecosystem. These tall shady figures remind guests of the important role that native plant materials play in Oklahoma’s natural environment.
As part of a Tree Bank Foundation program, celebrating 100 years of statehood, over 100 trees were planted along Oklahoma Trails, known as Centennial Tree Groves. http://www.thetreebank.org/tree-projects/beautification-projects/centennial-grove-native-plantings/
Landscaping near the Zoo’s recently renovated picnic area is nearing completion, including the addition of many new gardens. The picnic grove and great lawn will be the new heart of the botanical garden with several distinct garden areas.
According to a recent press release, the plants chosen for the gardens will bloom in succession throughout the seasons providing color and enjoyment for Zoo guests. The garden is laden with landmark native plant specimens alongside rare and unusual species. They will thrive under a canopy of flowering trees and shrubs carefully designed to accentuate the existing oak grove.
The project was inspired by the historic Oklahoma oaks which are conserved as a fundamental part of the space. The preservation of these ancient members of the botanical collection was the motivation behind the update, according to Swearengin. Construction of a large picnic deck will raise guests into the grove canopy while reducing issues with further soil compaction, which works to save these landmark trees for future generations, Swearengin added.
Opening this summer, the new 6.6 acre, $22 million Sanctuary Asia area will create a unique environment for endangered animals from the Asian continent to thrive. Guests will be able to observe these endangered creatures as they receive world-class zoological care within a “lush, stimulating natural environment.”
Incorporating plants native to Oklahoma, the garden’s layout is inspired by traditional Japanese and southeastern Asian horticultural traditions. The design’s goal is to “evoke harmony and feature a serene landscape that’s beautiful in every season,” the release said.
Other Zoo horticultural highlights include Oklahoma’s largest collection of hardy bamboo as well as many rare and endangered plants displayed on the grounds and in exhibits.
The Zoo’s annual floral festival, Zoo Blooms, going on now, includes over 100,000 specimens of flowering bulbs such as tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, crocus, narcissus and iris.
Many of the Zoo’s plants are used as enrichment-dietary supplements for Zoo animals, such as bamboo, mulberry trees, willows, canes, day lily flowers, and sugar cane.
The OKC Zoo has one of the largest, outdoor walk-through Butterfly Gardens in Oklahoma totaling 21,000 square feet.
Oklahoma City Zoo hours of operation are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Regular admission is $11 for adults and $8 for children ages 3-11 and seniors ages 65 and over. Children two and under are admitted free. To learn more, call 405-424-3344 or visit okczoo.org.