Denver Zoo Map
April 17, 2014

Throwback Thursday - Horticulture

This summer Denver Zoo will host the silver anniversary celebration of Do At The Zoo, presented by Anadarko Petroleum Corporation. As we prepare to honor 25 years of this successful fundraiser we have enjoyed looking back at some of our favorite memories. For today’s Throwback Thursday, the Zoo is honoring the amazing development of our Horticulture Department over the last 25 years.

The Zoo’s Horticulture Department was officially created in 1989 when Merle Moore was hired to direct and oversee the landscape activities.  Since then, the Zoo has worked to accomplish its vision of employing the landscape as both a pleasing recreational area and as an integral educational tool. While the official horticulture department managed by the Denver Zoological Foundation is relatively new in reference to the Zoo’s 118 year history, the landscape and gardens have always been a critical part of the Zoo’s history, as it was literally carved out of the existing City Park landscape.

In the early 1900’s, landscape architects played an important role in the evolution of Denver Zoo.  Meandering pathways were included in the early designs and separated exhibits that were enhanced by both natural and formal gardens.  By 1918, the Zoo was known as a “Zoological Garden” that enlisted the use of native plantings and animals to educate the “student of nature.”  Some of the original trees planted in 1890 are still alive today in locations such as Monkey Island.

Significant plantings would not occur again until the 1950’s and 60’s, after decades of differing ideologies, political priorities and economic challenges were overcome.  The city’s parks department planted more trees and shrubs to screen buildings, to serve as natural barriers in between exhibits and to keep the public a safe distance from exhibits.  Most of these plantings have since been updated with a more desirable plant pallet that still serve many of the same functions to guide guests during their experience at the Zoo. Plant species are carefully selected, planted and maintained to enrich the environment and conserve our natural resources.  

Since Merle Moore started the Horticulture Department at Denver Zoo 25 years ago, the team has grown to maintain all of the landscapes across the Zoo’s 80 acre campus, in and out of the exhibits. Their department mission statement is to plan and implement an annual program of landscape development that strengthens the scientific, educational, and exhibit value of the living collections of the Denver Zoo; and that provides safe, clean and attractively landscaped grounds to enhance our visitors' experience. The team includes 24 full-time positions with an additional four to five seasonal staff each year.

With nearly two million visitors a year, the landscape plays an important role in education and conservation.  Not only do green spaces provide an opportunity for recreation and education, they are also critical to combat global warming and protect water sheds. The horticulture team provided important guidance in the planning and development of Primate Panorama, Predator Ridge and Toyota Elephant Passage. Through careful plant selection and plan design the landscape in these three areas transports our guests to another portion of the world. In Primate Panorama visitors find themselves walking through the shaded canopy of the jungle, a visit to Predator Ridge reflects the dry savannahs of Africa, and a trip through the bamboo and palm trees in Toyota Elephant Passage creates a sense of south-east Asia. Each species of plant had to be carefully selected to replicate environments from all over the world, but also survive in the dry, sunny Colorado climate.

Denver Zoo horticulturists also help provide herbs, flowers, fruits and vegetables to supplement animal diets prepared in the Zoo’s commissary. Every week during the growing season, bushels of fresh produce are harvested all over the Zoo that can be safely given to the animals. Animals across the Zoo, from pachyderms to pygmy marmosets, enjoy carefully selected browse, or trimmings, from trees and shrubs. Some animals eat it, some play with it and some build nests with it. The horticulture team helps insure that the items grown on Zoo grounds provide our animal residents with natural, healthy and enriching food sources.

During our 25th Annual Do At The Zoo, take a moment to realize the impact and importance of the critical work our Horticulture Department provides to the Zoo. With each yard mowed, tree trimmed and flower planted, their work enhances every visit to Denver Zoo as well as the lives of our animal residents.

Denver Zoo’s Horticulture Team:

  • Overseas a wing in the City Park Greenhouse
  • Will plant three seasons of annual flower displays during the summer
  • Currently maintains about 800 trees on Denver Zoo grounds
  • Moves 20-25  palms from the greenhouse to Zoo grounds each summer and back again each fall
  • Is responsible for the waste and recycling collection on Zoo grounds
  • Is Responsible for sourcing and providing all local browse for the Zoo’s animal collection


Denver Zoo's previous logo, a pronghorn, in flowers, 1981.

Pronghorn statue and gardens, 1990.

Merle Moore's retirement celebration, 2005.

Current Denver Zoo greenhouse, cared for by horticulture team.

Spring flowers at Denver Zoo's modern main entrance.


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