By Nina Evans, Horticulturist
Come spring most of us gardeners will be getting outside, anxious to work the soil. As we dig, we will be happy to see the ever-present earthworm. These soil-dwelling creatures are so good for our soil, aerating and fertilizing the earth as they tunnel along. Perhaps not all of us realize, however, that these wriggly contributors to good garden soil are not native to the United States and are actually a cause of great concern in some settings. How can this be?
Believe it or not, there are no native earthworms in most of Indiana (or in the Midwest, for that matter)! All such animals disappeared from everywhere but the southernmost part of our state during the last ice age when glaciers basically bulldozed the earth. Any you might find here are mostly from Europe or Asia, like the well-known night crawler (Lumbricus rubellus). Many came to the United States from foreign lands in ships using stone and soil as ballast. Those worm-harboring materials were then dumped here when they were no longer needed. Explorers, immigrants and members of the plant nursery trade have brought massive numbers of plants over time into the U.S., harboring worms or their eggs. And non-native worms like night crawlers used as fishing bait get released around lakes and ponds everywhere.
Earthworms can be wonderful for the soil of your vegetable and ornamental gardens and agricultural fields. The problems they create occur when the worms' numbers become too great. Maybe you've heard stories about people not being able to dig without coming across bunches of earthworms in every shovelful, or of worms leaving behind piles of castings that can actually be the home to more worms! This can lead to lumpy lawns and messy patios, at best, and an out-of-control population of worms can actually take up so much space that they reduce the amount of soil your plants are growing in, causing the plants' health to decline.
It is in woods and forests where earthworms cause the greatest harm. They greatly decrease the amount of decomposing plant material on the ground and change the soil fertility and structure. This makes the soil drier, reduces the ability of native trees species seeds to germinate, invites the growth of invasive species and reduces the overall diversity of plants present. And plant diversity is very important to the long term survival of our woodlands and the animals that live there.
So now you know- earthworms aren't the native, totally beneficial creatures they have been thought to be for many years. Love them in your garden, but not in your woods!
Mythical creatures have been a part of stories for centuries, and most of the beasts in common folklore originate from animals we know and love in real life. Popular book series like Harry Potter have made these fantastical beings more popular today, so many avid fans may be familiar with the fictional critters that have inspired stories for ages.
Before you hit the movies or the books, discover some real-life animals that inspired the stories.
One of the most popular mythical creatures, unicorns are generally described as a white horse-like animal with a single, spiraling horn growing from its forehead. But did you know that one of the origins of the unicorn is credited by some to an early ancestor of the rhinoceros? Even famed explorer Marco Polo believed he had found a unicorn when he first encountered a rhino during his travels in Java. Here at the Zoo, our white rhinos Spike, Gloria and Mambo are distant cousins to the animals that inspired the unicorn myth, but to us, they're just as fascinating and majestic.
They are described as the terrifying "King of serpents" that could stretch upright and kill a human with just eye contact. Many think that some species of cobra provided the inspiration for this fictional monster, as some of these snakes pick up their head, almost like standing upright. The red spitting cobra in our Deserts Dome may be venomous, but don't worry — they can't harm you with just a look. In the Harry Potter tales, the basilisk's size and power are also key characteristics. Among the many large snake species, Burmese pythons can grow to more than 200 pounds and 20 feet. Here at the Zoo, Iris and Lily may look imposing, but when you meet them during our keeper chats, you'll realize their demeanor is nothing like the fictitious creatures.
This soaring, flame-colored creature is said said to burst into a fiery ball when it dies before rising from the ashes to be reborn. Some historians seem to think that a type of heron was the inspiration for this fictional being, with long legs and bright red coloration. And though we have many bright birds in our aviaries, perhaps the closest to that mythological flighted friend is Ruby, our scarlet macaw.
Many fantasy creatures are a compilation of multiple real animals. With the the head, wings and sometimes also the talons of an eagle on the body of a lion, griffins are thought to be the mythical king of all creatures. Here at the Zoo, if you spend time watching our African lion pride — especially lioness Zuri — and also our bald eagle, Tempest, it's easy to see where griffins derive their majesty and ferocity.
The official start of winter is just a few weeks away in
Central Indiana, but a very different season is about to begin inside our Oceans
The three species of penguins here at the Zoo — rockhopper,
Gentoo and king — are all native to the southern hemisphere, where the seasons
are reversed from Indiana’s. We maintain those seasons within our exhibit to
support the penguins’ natural breeding cycles.
So as the spring gives way to summer inside our Oceans
exhibit, the annual breeding season is in full swing, making this the perfect
time for penguin lovers to see some unique behaviors.
Unlike many birds that build nests using soft materials,
like leaves and twigs, our penguins prefer pebbles. Around the first of
October, Zookeepers began scattering extra rocks throughout the exhibit —
including in the pools — encouraging the penguins to scour their space selecting
stones to build the best nest.
Rocky piles have taken form all around the exhibit, some out
in the open and others inside caves. Building a quality nest full of prized
pebbles can help a penguin win a mate. So even the nests are in place, penguins
have to keep a watchful eye out for sneaky competitors trying to raid their
Penguin pairs typically stay the same from year to year, which
is rare in the animal kingdom. And although it looks at times like one of the
partners might be lying down on the job, the males and females play equal roles
in protecting their nests. While one bird keeps the egg warm, the other finds
food or stands guard nearby.
Occasionally you might see a small quarrel between some of
our birds. Though it can look a little tense, this kind of behavior is natural
for penguins as they protect their nests from one another — and sometimes even
keepers — just as they would from competitors or predators in the wild. In
fact, when our penguins show these protective behaviors, it’s a positive sign that
reinforces the level of care and protection they might offer future offspring.
By early January, breeding season will be over. So make some
time soon to come see these fascinating behaviors in person. Plus, you can watch
our Penguin Cam all year long!
Perhaps you have some spring-flowering bulbs that you just haven't managed to plant yet. Or maybe you are already dreaming of the sight and fragrance of flowers that you won't be seeing outside for months. There is a way you can still make use of those crocuses, hyacinths and narcissus (daffodils) and have blooms inside this winter and early spring through the forcing of bulbs.
"Forcing" means compelling plants to bloom early or indoors by mimicking natural conditions. The process involves chilling the kinds of bulbs that require the colder temperatures of winter before blooming, then bringing them inside as if it were spring. This is the case for all of the bulbs that we in the Midwest plant in the fall.
The basics of forcing involve placing the bulbs – pointed ends up and sides not touching each other – on top of two inches or more of potting mix in a clean pot with drainage holes. Then you cover them with more mix until just the tips show. Water well, then store in a spot that will be 35 to 50 degrees, watering a bit every couple of weeks if the soil gets dry. A refrigerator will work, but keep them away from a large amount of fruit, which emit gases that may damage the developing flower buds. A cool garage or basement is a good choice. They can go outside, but you'll want to place the pots in a cold frame or in the ground with some mulch over them so they don't get too cold.
Once you see leaves emerging, move the pots to a warmer spot (up to 65 degrees) out of direct light. Keep the plants watered so the soil is moist but not soggy. As the leaves begin to green up and get taller, you can move the plants to warmer and brighter spots. In two to three weeks you will have beautiful spring flowers to enjoy!
Generally it takes anywhere from 10 to 20 weeks of chilling, depending on the type of plant. So if you are starting now, your plants might begin blooming inside not much before the ones outdoors do. In that case, you can transplant them to your outdoor pots for great spring container plantings, if you like. Or keep them inside where you can enjoy them up close.
If you want to have plants that bloom indoors during the heart of winter, you have three options. Look for pre-cooled bulbs, which allow you to skip the chilling process and go straight to the indoor potted plant stage. Or get non-hardy amaryllis and paperwhite narcissus bulbs, which require no cold period. Finally, look ahead to next fall and begin the forcing process in September or October for colorful and often fragrant blooms in your home when the winter outside is frightful!
delighted to see record numbers of monarch butterflies visiting White River Gardens
recently as they migrated south toward Mexico. For about a two-week period, hundreds
of these winged beauties fluttered through our flowerbeds daily, enjoying the
varieties of milkweed and other flowers we’ve planted for them.
Having so many
monarchs flying around at once is a breath-taking sight! It’s also exciting
news for all of us concerned with monarch butterfly conservation efforts.
It’s a central
part of our mission at the Indianapolis Zoo to work and advocate for animal
conservation for species all over the world as well as right here in our own
And that’s why
we support Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, working together with other cities
along the monarchs’ migratory route, to make Indianapolis a monarch-friendly
city. Community leaders, concerned citizens and school groups around our city
have started sharing seeds, planting milkweed and building habitats to save
this important insect.
If you’re a
simple gardener and you plant a butterfly-friendly garden, you are doing great
work. If you are a school group or a third-grade class and you have a bug
garden, thank you; you are helping to ensure monarchs remain a part of Indiana’s
clouds of butterflies we’ve seen recently in White River Gardens are a
testament that our city’s collective efforts are paying off!
The biodiversity in our world is pretty remarkable! We share our planet with millions of species, more than 200 of which are represented by animal ambassadors here at the Indianapolis Zoo. Our animals are all so unique, with different characteristics that make them incredible. And every time you come to the Zoo to connect with your favorite furry friends, you're also helping to support these species in the wild. So let's learn more about our amazing animals and how together we're saving wild things and wild places!
The largest animal here at the Zoo is Sophi, one of our female African elephants, who weighs more than 9,500 pounds — that's nearly five tons! And with your help, we've provided a ton of support for elephants. In 2012 alone, we raised $90,000 to benefit the Tarangire Elephant Project from parking during Super Bowl XLVI.
The smallest of all our Zoo critters is the humble honeybee. These incredible insects play an important role by pollinating many of the plants in our food chain. And in the spring of 2016, we started a bee colony in White River Gardens to support the local bee population.
For the tallest animal at the Zoo, we look up to our reticulated giraffes. And we're more alike with these lofty animals than you might think. Both giraffes and humans have seven vertebrae in their necks, though a giraffe's vertebrae can each be up to 10 inches long!
The cheetah — the fastest animal on land — breathes an astonishing 150 times per minute when chasing its prey! Plus, every time you Race-A-Cheetah here at the Zoo, the funds go directly to the Cheetah Conservation Fund to help save this fast feline.
Adult male orangutans can have an armspan up to 8 feet — 18 inches wider than the average NFL linebacker! And to make sure our orangutan friends have forests to swing through, we support reforestation efforts with the Kutai Orangutan Project.
Amur tigers are one of the world's largest big cats —growing up to 10 feet in length! And simply by recycling your cell phone, you can help save these cool cats.
Smooth dogfish sharks can change color slightly to blend into their environments. And you can take direct part in saving ocean species like dog sharks by making informed decisions at the grocery and purchasing sustainable seafood.
Both male and female Pacific walrus have tusks, overgrown canine teeth that these massive marine mammals use for activities like digging and defense. You can help these large yet loveable animals by unplugging unused electronics and appliances to reduce energy consumption in your home.
It's parrot pandemonium! Yes, that's the real name for a group of these brightly colored birds. Not only will our guests see some impressive parrots — specifically macaws — in action with our new exhibit coming in 2017, we've also been helping to save species like the scarlet macaw and great green macaw through support of the Ara Project.
Despite being relatively slow, lionfish are one of the top predators in their native reef environments in the South Pacific and Indian Oceans. They can thank their beautiful striping and coloration that provides perfect camouflage to help them ambush prey. Yet the species has become invasive in parts of the southeast U.S., and the Zoo opened a new exhibit in early 2016 to help raise awareness.
Originating in Africa, white rhinos were named for their wide mouths. When the name was translated to English, "wide" became "white" by mistake. And we invite everyone to help strike out extinction by participating in the wildly fun event, Bowling for Rhinos, hosted annually by our local American Association of Zookeepers chapter!
The bald eagle (like our Tempest!) was one of the first species placed on the endangered species list, and was at risk of going extinct. But through the success of nationwide conservation efforts, eagle populations have increased and the species has been since removed from the endangered list.
By Nina Evans
Fall is moving along and winter seems not so far off. But, if you are like me, there are some things you just didn't get to in your garden. Never fear! It's not too late to get out there and do quite a bit in your yard before the ground freezes and you can no longer dig in the soil.
You still have a good chance of digging and storing tender bulbs like cannas, caladiums and dahlias bulbs and tubers for the winter if you know where they are planted. Look for firm bulbs not damaged by insects. Firm roots of showy begonias can be potted up as houseplants.
Keep raking or mulching the leaves on your lawn to avoid killing the grass. But allow leaves from healthy plants to stay put around your trees, shrubs and perennials as a mulch that will decompose next season.
Remove the leaves from your planting beds that have fallen from plants with leaf diseases or insect infestations. Go ahead and compost them – that will kill off the unhealthy pests and diseases.
You can cut back most perennials to just a few inches from the ground, if you like. There are some you might like to leave in place that will continue to provide cover for or feed wildlife, look attractive far into the winter, or whose foliage may help protect the roots over the winter.
Mulching trees and shrubs right now is a worthy project. Mulching beds of bulbs and flowering perennials is even better if left until we've had a good, hard frost. This helps prevent "heaving" of these smaller, shallower rooted plants, where repeated freezing and thawing of the ground literally pushes them part way out of the soil, leading to damage to the plant from exposure to the cold.
If it's been a dry fall in your area, watering your needled evergreens and any newer plants until the ground freezes will help them survive until spring.
If you still have unplanted spring flowering bulbs, it is actually not too late to get that done! As long as the bulbs are firm and healthy (a little mold is no big deal), go ahead and plant them, especially larger ones like tulips, daffodils and such, as long as you can dig the soil.
Finally, even after the ground is frozen, you can work on pruning the majority of your dormant trees and shrubs. Even trees with running sap won't be harmed by cold weather pruning, though you can wait until very late winter when the sap isn't doing this to avoid it getting onto your car or driveway. What not to prune? Evergreens – they should be pruned in the spring and fall – and plants that bloom early in the season, which will lose their flower buds.
So before you give up on gardening and stay cooped up inside for the winter, there are some things you can still get outside and do on nicer November days. You will be helping your outdoor plants through our coldest season and getting a jump on next spring!
By Jeff Hansen
With the arrival of October, it’s time for us gardeners to
think about the more tender members of our plant family. The average first
frost date for most of Central Indiana is Oct. 18 – any plants susceptible to
cold damage that you don’t want to lose to Old Man Winter should be inside for
the winter by this time.
Unfortunately, when we haul our plants inside we often bring
some tagalongs, too. Pests like whiteflies, aphids, mealybugs, fungus gnats,
thrips and spider mites are all easily brought inside when moving plants
indoors. While these pests may not cause harm to your plants when they are
outside, when brought inside that can change fast. When attacking outside, these
bugs are often kept at bay by natural predators and weather, but once inside
your home, those natural controls go away and bug populations can boom. To
maintain the health and quality of your plants throughout the winter, it is
important to control these pests.
Prevention is the best medicine, and a small colony of
insects is much easier to deal with than a mass infestation. Scout out the
plants you plan to bring indoors and look at stems, under leaves, in crevices
and axils and at the tips with the newest growth. This is where these pests
will tend to accumulate, especially the newest growth where the plant tissue is
most tender and bugs can easily suck out the plant’s sugar. If you spot some
pests at this stage, spraying them off with a stream of water may do the trick.
You can also snip off infested shoot tips or just get down and dirty and squish
them! Remember that pest identification is key: the more you know about your
enemy, the more prepared you will be to defeat them.
If you missed your buggy problem while your plants were
outside, you might have a covert group of insects laying low on your plants.
While watering your hibiscus mid-January, you may take a closer look and
realize that it’s covered in aphids! Once inside, these bugs often sneak up on
us and by the time we realize they are there, they’ve already begun damaging
the plant. Like before, you can try hosing down your plants in the shower or
manually removing or squishing your invaders. Sticky traps can be used to catch
whiteflies and fungus gnats. If an infestation cannot be dealt with in these
ways, then chemical treatment is always an option. There are a number of
contact and systemic insecticides available commercially, as well as some home
remedies that can be prepared. Diluted alcohol, neem oil and even garlic-based
solutions can be prepared at home for little cost, and recipes can easily be
Remember, each pest is different so if you want to target a specific
problem bug it’s a good idea to look up detailed information on treatment
options. With the right information and a keen eye, we can combat these
uninvited guests and keep our plants beautiful.
Whether they're featured on the big screen or in folk tales, storks seem to be trendy in pop culture. And our storks here at the Indianapolis Zoo deserve some time in the spotlight, too.
People of all ages are familiar with the myth that storks carry babies swaddled in cloth and deliver them to the doorsteps of their new homes. The species commonly associated with this tale is the European white stork. This iconic bird is easily recognizable with its long, slender body covered in white feathers and large black-tipped wings. But did you know the European white stork is just one of 19 stork species, and guests can see one of them, the marabou stork, right here at the Zoo?
Marabous look quite a bit different than the birds from the myth and sometimes they go unrecognized as storks. Sporting dark gray wing feathers with a mostly white body and nearly bare head, the marabou has the same stretching neck and long legs as its better-known relative. With one of the largest wingspans of all birds (7-9 feet long), these carnivorous critters fly high over grasslands, swamps and savannahs, migrating many miles searching for small rodents and animals to get its fill of meat. They have strong beaks for feeding, and their towering legs help them wade in water as they hunt for things like fish and other smaller creatures.
Similar to vultures, these flighted friends will also snack on carcasses, playing an important role in tidying up their habitat to keep the ecosystem clean and healthy. Weighing around 20 pounds and standing up to 60 inches tall, these strong, sizeable storks are a sight to see.
During your next Zoo visit, stop by Plains to meet our marabou brothers, George and Luke, and discover why this species is so spectacular.
The Indianapolis Zoo is home to nearly 230 different animal species, including a few that are absolutely prehistoric!
Visitors to the Deserts Dome will see many reptiles whose cousins were the dinosaurs that roamed the earth millions of years ago. Yet despite their long history on this planet, some of these reptile species may disappear without help in the near future.
Learn more about Jamaican iguanas, and why the Indianapolis Zoo is working to save the species, from the Zoo's Deserts Area Manager, John Wyatt:
Jamaican Iguanas (Cyclura collei) are one of several different species of rock iguanas found throughout the Caribbean Islands. These iguanas are only found on Jamaica and were thought to be extinct until rediscovery in 1990. Currently the population is so low they are considered critically endangered and they are the most endangered of the rock iguanas.
The wild population is beginning to increase with successful reintroductions from the head-start breeding program at Hope Zoo in Jamaica. However, the Indianapolis Zoo is also joining in the effort to save this species.
In 2006, the Zoo was the first zoo outside of Jamaica to hatch these amazing lizards. It was a huge success for the Species Survival Plan Breeding Program, and the Indianapolis Zoo was recognized by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums for this special achievement.
The Zoo currently has two pairs of Jamaican Iguanas, Leroy and Gertrude, and Beauty and Beast. These iguanas are kept off exhibit so that they can have a little more privacy and can be better monitored by staff in hopes of hatching out more babies.
We're also proud and excited that some of the offspring from 2006 have begun having babies of their own at other zoos.
This is a rare, large, impressive lizard that many people don't get to see. They are very important to their ecosystem so it is imperative that we keep them from extinction. Breeding programs in Jamaica and in other facilities, like the Indianapolis Zoo, are very important in meeting this goal.