Nothing gives more meaning and magic to plants than seeing how they get on with the rest of the natural world. For Stephen Butler, coping with “a constant state of war between plants and animals or insects” was vital to his job as head gardener and curator of horticulture at Dublin Zoo.
Take the appetite of giraffes for the youngest, highest leaves of the African acacia tree. Acacias grow long thorns as a defence, but giraffes have long tongues to reach around them.
Some species of acacia grow hollow thorns, occupied by a particular species of ant. If the tree is besieged by a grazing giraffe, the ants swarm forth to bite its nose in discouragement. In return, the acacia provides food for the ants on the tips of its little leaflets.
Such insights into nature’s hidden war spice the pages of Butler’s Gardening for Gorillas: Trials, Tricks and Triumphs of a Zoo Horticulturalist. This outstanding book follows 37 years of habitat-making that helped lift one of the world’s oldest zoos into a modern, international model.
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Arriving in Dublin from student years at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, Butler found a Victorian zoo with no attempt to relate animals to their natural environment. Their enclosures lacked ecological meaning or enrichment. The zoo’s soil was tramped hard, not least by its marauding geese, and lake banks were studded with discarded metal junk.
In his relaxed and cheerfully idiomatic narrative (“Right, that’s sorted, so”), Butler gets down to the hands-on logistics of landscaping. This hid buildings and fences and gave both animals and visitors a densely planted experience that reflected far-off places – steamy rainforest, flowery savannah, orang-utan jungle.
The habitat for gorillas presented special problems, since their normal behaviour is challenging to permanent garden design. They eat almost all day, roaming widely to search for plant food and breaking or ripping off anything they fancy. In grazing, which they do a lot, they often pull up the whole grass plants to chew on them.
The animal team working on the gorilla habitat saw all this as valuable “enrichment”. It made a lot of planting seem a waste of time. And trying known “rabbit-proof “or “deer-proof” plants risked poisoning the gorillas with toxins. It took a year of research to list the right trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants and grasses and find nurseries to supply them.
Butler’s concern with plant poisons was important to his work. Some plants defend themselves with an off-putting bitterness. He was pleased to find an example in the purple willow, Salix purpurea, its sap made repellent by salicylic acid, the source of aspirin. This was duly spat out by gorillas and mangabey monkeys. They feasted, however, on the willow’s spring catkins, apparently innocent of aspirin.
A habitat for flamingoes suggested something more exotic, with dramatic leaves. Butler turned to varieties of giant gunnera, an ancient genus of plants that has jumped across the southern hemisphere. As a cultivated garden escape in Connacht, one species (Gunnera tinctoria) has become an invasive alien. So the zoo has used another (Gunnera manicata) that has yet to set any seed.
Bamboos thrive in the zoo, hiding buildings and giving animals the chance to relax out of the public gaze. Appropriate for the stripy camouflage of tigers, bamboos must be planted in clusters, leaving room for the big cats’ desire to follow regular paths.
Butler’s lifelong love of plants and their power to transform shines from the book’s illustrations. He regrets that “a lot of people suffer from ‘plant blindness’, the inability to notice plants in their environment”. His dealings with scores of species range from the tough, non-edible, satin-flowered Libertia to common plants prompting uncommon appetites. The gorillas gathered armfuls of red clover in a plant-by-plant harvesting that threatened to obliterate its presence.
Even with the zoo’s own nursery for busy propagation, buying enough trees, shrubs and flowers to plant a whole new habitat could be costly. The pandemic hit the zoo’s finances, as visitors suddenly disappeared. Gardeners were seen as an obvious economy, since the plants could surely look after themselves for a while.
In 2020, the zoo launched a public appeal for money, warning that it might need to close. This prompted one politician’s question on the modern purpose of zoos as against spending more on conserving animal lives in the wild.
But visitor education at zoos strengthens public funding for conservation. Butler also treasures new animal freedoms adopted by zoos internationally, among them the right to space and environment in which to follow normal behaviour.
The zoo’s appeal raised €1 million in a day and a pledge of new Government support. And the gorillas go on lifting leaves to discover random dandelions, whose rosettes they happen to enjoy.
Gardening for Gorillas (€35 hardback) is sold at Dublin Zoo or from Stephen Butler via email@example.com.