In addition to the wonderful animals that you’ll see during a visit to San Francisco Zoo & Gardens, you will also find bountiful gardens and plentiful plants. With our year-round mild climate, we can grow a wide variety of plants from all over the world, including beautiful California native plants and unique specimens from exotic locales. Navigate this blog for more information about our gardens and stop to admire the plant species in our park.

Plant Conservation and Animal Wellness

A wonderful example of our Zoo-wide Animal Wellness Initiative is the daily harvesting of browse materials for animals such as koalas, giraffes, rhinos, and many more. By continually supplying natural, home-grown branches and leaves, we can enrich the animals’ diets, stimulate their senses, and replicate how they would eat in the wild. Branches and leaves from eucalyptus, coprosma, acacia, bamboo, and other trees and shrubs are provided to our animals every day. Look carefully and you will frequently see the animals enjoying their fresh browse.

Our most significant browsers are the koalas. Since these picky marsupials need three varieties of fresh eucalyptus daily, meeting their needs requires daily cutting of 120 to 160 branches, each four to five feet long. Past Koala Crossing, on the way to the Australian WalkAbout, you will find our growing Eucalyptus Grove browse garden with red ironbark, bangalay, yellow gum, and river red gum. These Australian natives take to our climate very easily and their fallen leaves inhibit other plants from growing underneath, so they often grow as a “monoculture,” without other species. Eucalyptus trees soak up large amounts of water and have been used to help drain swampy areas, helping to eliminate mosquito breeding areas. Although this small garden will only be harvested two or three times a year, it demonstrates the diverse diet of our koalas.

Gardens of the Fisher Family Children’s Zoo

Butterfly Garden

Across from the meerkat and prairie dog exhibit is a wonderful butterfly garden. By selecting plants that caterpillars like to eat and flowers that adult butterflies are attracted to, we encourage butterflies to frequent this garden. Plants such as sticky monkey flower, pipe vine, seaside daisy, and California wild rose can be observed and, if you’re lucky, you may see a butterfly or two.

Fried-egg Poppy

The Romneya coulteri, also known as the “fried-egg poppy” thrives just inside the Children’s Zoo entrance. This California native can reach six to eight feet tall and blooms huge white flowers with a bright yellow center, resembling fried eggs.

Rose Garden

Near the rabbits and guinea pigs, across from the fried-egg poppy, a robust rose garden invites you to stop and admire. To add a bright splash of vibrancy to your walk through the Children’s Zoo, these colorful roses are joined by geraniums, wallflowers, and lily of the Nile. 

Greenies Conservation Corner

We celebrated Earth Day in 2010 with the grand unveiling of Greenie’s Conservation Corner. This lively, sustainable space interactively engages visitors and helps inspire “green” practices at home, school, and within the community. Located adjacent to the Otter River habitat, the 4,000-square-foot Greenie’s Conservation Corner features an organic garden growing food for some of our animals, a rare and historic 1906 earthquake shack, working rain barrel harvesting system, solar-powered fountain, wind turbine, worm farm, drip irrigation, water-wise gardens, bat houses, beehives and more.

Exploring Unique Tree Species

Big Cypress

As you go to grab some lunch at the Leaping Lemur Café, don’t forget to take a moment to admire a prime example of a Monterey cypress tree. This beautiful tree is native to the Monterey Bay Area and loves our foggy coastal climate. Mature trees can reach 70 feet or more, but ocean winds frequently bend the trees into flat-topped profiles.

Monkey Hand Tree

Growing in front of Grizzly Gulch is probably the most unique tree at the Zoo. Called a monkey hand tree, or sometimes a “devil’s hand,” this cloud forest native of Mexico and Guatemala possesses one of the strangest blooms in the plant kingdom. In late spring and into early summer, five red stamens extend from a cup of sepals and resemble a small, red hand. Yellow pollen lines the “fingers” stopping before the tip, giving the impression of fingernails. Both bats and perching birds have been observed pollinating the flowers in the wild. Look for this large tree the next time you visit the grizzly sisters.

Swamp Gum

As you walk along the lake from the koala exhibit towards the Australian WalkAbout exhibit, you’ll pass one of the most well-loved trees at the Zoo. Called a “swamp gum eucalyptus,” it was one of the original lake-shore plantings at the Zoo, planted sometime around 1925. There are only about 20 of these trees known to exist in California, and this is one of the largest! Swamp gums can thrive in wet areas like the edge of this pond and may reach 80 feet tall. However, this tree adapted to our windy coastal habitat and has spread out wide instead of tall.

Embracing Native California Gardens

One of the easiest conservation choices you can make is to select plants native to your region for your home garden. Native plants are adapted to the natural water cycle, which in California means a wet winter and a dry summer. Once established, California native gardens need little maintenance or water. Our native gardens can be found in front of the Connie and Bob Lurie Education Center building, at Greenie’s Conservation Corner and across from the Lion Fountain. Look for California poppies, yarrow, ceanothus and more.

Exploring African Plants

One benefit of the Bay Area’s moderate climate is the huge variety of plants from other regions that can thrive in this area. This includes the many African plants that can be found around the Leanne B. Roberts African Savanna and Osher Giraffe Lodge. Stunning examples include many protea species, a common type of cut flower, that bloom large and bright, in a variety of shapes and colors. As you stroll around the savanna area, be sure to look for some of the amazing biodiversity and colorful blooms.

A Glimpse of the Prehistoric Garden

Is that a dinosaur you see? There is a delightful Prehistoric Garden located across from the South American Tropical Building by the edge of the lake. This area focuses on ancient plant varieties that have survived for millions of years. Mosses, gunnera, horsetails and ferns have survived since the time of dinosaurs and continue to delight to this day.

The Dune Garden: A Piece of San Francisco’s History

It can be easy to forget that the Sunset District of San Francisco was once covered with sand dunes. Small shrubs and plants help anchor the dunes, preventing erosion and keeping the flowing sand in place. In our small dune garden near the Lion Fountain, you’ll find dune tansy, coyote brush, coast iris and beach strawberry.

San Francisco Zoo & Gardens: An Oasis for Animals and Plants Alike

Visiting San Francisco Zoo and Gardens provides a unique opportunity to not only connect with a diverse range of animals but also to appreciate the rich tapestry of plant life from around the world. From conservation efforts to historic trees and gardens that harken back to California’s past, our botanical journey at the zoo is an enriching experience for all visitors. So, the next time you visit the San Francisco Zoo, take a moment to immerse yourself in the wonders of the natural world that surrounds you.

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