Nov 06
Plants to Celebrate the Winter Holidays

Nina Evans
Zoo Horticulturist

When considering plants we love to have in our homes this time of the year, most of us think of Christmas trees and poinsettias. You might create a festive air with evergreen conifer and holly branches in your home, or hang mistletoe in a spot that is a good place to catch someone with a kiss. Many such plant-related traditions have evolved over hundreds of years, influenced by region, culture, religion and popular whim.

In some ancient cultures, the branches of evergreen trees, such as fir, spruce, cedar and holly, were brought indoors in the winter because they believed the boughs provided protection. In the 16th Century, people in parts of Germany brought in a "paradise tree" as part of a celebration of Adam and Eve. Our penchant for elaborately decorated trees became popular in the United States after President Franklin Pierce began putting one in the White House during his tenure there from 1853-57.

Others botanical winter traditions have shorter histories. The beautiful red- and green-leaved poinsettia was brought to South Carolina from Mexico in the 1820s. They were primarily grown outdoors in warm climates and used as cut flowers until the 60s when a California farmer began providing them for use on the sets of popular television shows and in women's magazine layouts. And so our wide-spread use of poinsettias for Christmas developed!

Some plant-centric winter traditions have faded over time. Take the fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria), once an important part of winter solstice ceremonies throughout northern European and Asian. Once thought to help people commune with the spiritual world, the tradition fell out of favor.

In Oaxaca, Mexico, Night of the Radishes on Dec. 23 comes from an old Dominican Christmas tradition and involves local artisans exhibiting amazing displays made with large radishes and other plant materials.

And have you a pickle on your Christmas tree? Stories about this holiday tradition began in either Germany, Spain or the United States in the late 1800s. Whatever its origin, whether it predicts good luck for the one who first finds the pickle, or even promotes the growing of cucumber plants in our gardens, it is a fun holiday tradition that is part of our culture yet today!

Oct 10
Creating Winter Interest For Your Garden

By Greg Holthaus
Zoo Horticulturist

As the daylight shortens and the leaves flutter from their summertime homes high in the canopy, winter is approaching. It can be a challenge for gardeners to provide interest in the landscape during the cold, dreary months of winter. Some ways a "green thumb" can catch the attention of curious eyes is to consider color and texture of the shrubs and trees similar to the way a painter colors a canvas. Specifically, if you are gardening for a fourth season, consider the bark of these woody perennials because the leaves will not be present except, of course, in the case of evergreens. 

Colorful tree bark is hard to find but there are a few species that exhibit this unique characteristic. The common sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) has beautiful exfoliating bark that possesses shades of olive, light brown and white that breaks up the drab grey and brown skyline. Yellow bark can be a good contrast to the natural colors and can be planted in the yard with a couple of shrubs including a willow species (Salix alba 'Flame') and a dogwood cultivar (Cornus sericea 'Budd's Yellow'). A different cultivar of dogwood (Cornus sericea 'Baileyi') can provide a fiery red that would exquisitely compliment the yellow bark; bringing warmth to the cold. 

In addition to color, implementing textures can bring curiosity to the garden in the fourth season. The oak-leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), as well as having stupendous fall color and showy white flowers, has a flakey bark that is not unlike a frayed piñata. If the papery look is not for you then the smooth and natural look of the American beech (Fagus grandifolia) should be appealing. Usually known for lovers carving their initials inside of hearts into its bark, when left unscathed it can be rather attractive. However, few trees can replicate as classic of a tree look as the deeply furrowed appearance of a fully mature cottonwood (Populus deltoides). When you think of the classic "tree bark look" the eastern cottonwood is the tree that comes to mind. 

The winter season can still be a time for appreciating the garden if a little consideration goes into the plant selection. The plants presented in this article serve only as a few examples, among many, that can be found around the Zoo during the winter months. We use techniques similar to what a painter uses to create our landscapes by paying attention to the way colors, textures, and shapes interact in a flower bed. I hope you can find the inspiration this winter to consider planting a winter wonderland of unique colors and textures. 

Sep 26
Fall Bulbs for Spring Bloom Year After Year

By Nina Evans​

This is the right time to get going on planting your spring blooming bulbs! Planting bulbs in the fall is an easy way for you to create an extra spectacular flower display next spring through early summer. Big, beautiful tulips are a favorite of many people, but they tend to become smaller and fewer after the first year. This is because tulips are originally from what is now Turkey with a climate that is hot and dry during the summer and quite cold in the winter. So that is what they like, while we water when it isn't raining as much as we like in the summer, and our winter temperatures tend to be all over the place.

There are fall-planted bulbs that will look quite good for you year after year. But most reliably perennial spring bulbs are smaller plants. Even those can give you a great show when planted in masses. Here is a list of bulbs that we have had good luck with over the years in the Indianapolis Zoo and White River Gardens.

Daffodils (Narcissus) — Most are definitely showy and will grow into bigger and bigger clumps as the years go by. For best flower number and size make sure they get plenty of sun, don't remove the leaves in the spring until they begin to turn brown, and divide the clumps when they get large.

Tulips (Tulipa) — Smaller tulips, often referred to as species tulips, live longer than the large, cultivated ones. Look for names like Tulipa bakeri (such as 'Lilac Wonder'), T. humilis (like 'Persian Pearl'), and T. sylvestris. 

Crocuses (Crocus) — Create masses of white, purples and yellows with these reliably hardy plants! The biggest drawback is that they tend to be dug up and chewed off by our native wildlife.

Grape hyacinths (Muscari) — Known as grape hyacinths, a large planting will look like a cool, blue pool. Most people are aquainted with the medium blue one, Muscari armeniacum, which is the best at coming back for many years. But there are a surprising number of others in varying shades of blue and white.

Ornamental onions (Allium) — Alliums are quite safe from scavengers because of their strong smell and taste. There are gigantic and tiny alliums in purples, pinks and white, all with clusters of flowers arranged in stiff or drooping globes. They bloom in late spring and into summer. The smaller types can re-seed quite a bit.​

Snowdrops (Galanthus) — Early bloomers that tell you spring is coming! Little white three-petaled flowers that hang like a bell often begin blooming while snow is on the ground, earning them the name Snowdrops.

Dwarf irises (Iris reticulata) — These are dwarf irises of yellow, blue, purple and white and many combinations of those colors. They also bloom quite early. We've had a cultivar named 'George' in the Raised Garden since 2004!

Quamash (Camassia) — Not a familiar bulb to many folks, it sports spikes of flowers in mostly blue tones. Two have turning heads with in the White River Gardens for a number of years. Camassia cusickii has spikes of silvery blue flowers that grow to two feet or more. Camassia 'Sacajawea' white flowers and showy creamy white and green striped leaves.

Wood hyacinth (Hyacinthoides) — Also called bluebells. They are definitely worth putting in both your sunny and fairly shady spots! They look similar to the better-known fragrant hyacinths, but have much looser and wild-looking clusters of pink, white, or blue flowers.

Aug 08
Learning About, Caring for and Protecting Walrus

By Erika Allen
Senior Marine Mammal Trainer

As a Senior Marine Mammal Trainer at the Indianapolis Zoo, caring for our marine mammals and working toward conservation of their wild habitats are some of the most rewarding parts of my job.

Mentored by my fellow Senior Trainer, Lisa Oland, I've developed a passion for working with and protecting walrus. My experiences working around these highly intelligent and charismatic animals have inspired me to put my heart into their wellbeing and protection. Together, Lisa and I have worked with the Zoo's Marine Mammal Training team to enhance the lives of our walrus through creative enrichment and innovative research training. Our passion and dedication to these animals has created a desire to work with facilities and organizations from around the world to collaborate with a mission of learning about, and protecting walrus.  

Back in early May, Lisa and I were able to do just that in Anchorage, Alaska. This opportunity came through the Zoo's involvement with the Walrus Conservation Consortium, a group of top walrus professionals from around the world who meet annually to discuss walrus care, management, research, and conservation.

In addition to learning about new ways to advance walrus care, we shared our experiences with our two Pacific walrus, Aurora and Pakak​. The information the Zoo's staff has gained from years of working with walrus has enabled us to contribute important welfare and research data to the global walrus and scientific communities.

During the workshop, we also had the opportunity to meet with representatives from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as well as the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. This collaboration on research projects and conservation funding will hopefully lead to a better understanding of Pacific walrus and their habitats, as well as increased conservation efforts.

You can support one such fundraising effort at the Zoo by participating in our "round up" program in the gift shop. Guests will be given the opportunity to round their total purchase cost up to the nearest dollar, with the difference being donated to the Alaska SeaLife Center to be used on walrus-specific research and rehabilitation.

Next time you visit the zoo, don't forget to stop by and say hello to Pakak and Aurora and learn about your impact on the arctic environment and how you can join the zoo in helping to protect this amazing species!

Aug 04
Baby Orangutans Mila and Max are Great Playmates

The Indianapolis Zoo's two tiniest orangutans, 1-year-olds Mila and Max, are growing fast. And since they were recently introduced to one another, they're also forming a great friendship as they play and explore together.

The Zoo celebrated its first-ever orangutan birth when Mila was born on March 23, 2016, to mom Sirih and dad Basan. While Mila stayed close by her mother's side for the first few months, it didn't take long for the curious youngster to begin exploring on her own. Zookeeper Stacie Beckett said Mila is an incredibly independent and fearless ape. She's also picking up many of Basan's mannerisms — like somersaulting, putting her feet on the mesh and using the ground to scratch her back.

Max and his mother, Kim, came to the Zoo in the fall of 2016 and moved into the Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center a few months later. While Max was delayed developmentally when he first arrived, he has made spectacular progress with the support of our expert animal care team. Recently, Max has started eating more solid foods — bananas seem to be a favorite. Like Mila, Max is very curious and playful. He is becoming more independent and enjoys climbing and crawling everywhere. He also spends lots of time playing with big sheets of paper, plastic buckets and cardboard boxes.

Designed from the orangutans' point of view, the Center encourages all the apes' incredible abilities and allows them to climb, swing and move in a very natural way.​ And Max and Mila have both explored every inch of their dynamic space — from the bottom up to the top and even outside!

Beckett said Mila and Max were a little hesitant upon first meeting each other, but they've warmed up to each other and are now great playmates. They often chase each other, roll around and wrestle together. The babies also seek out Sirih, "Auntie" Knobi and other adult females to join in the fun.

As you watch the two young apes play together, you can tell them apart by their hair — Max has darker hair that sticks up on both sides while Mila has lighter locks.

Having two orangutans who are so close in age is wonderful, Beckett said. Like human siblings, Max and Mila have lots of energy, and playtime doesn't have to end when the adults need a break.

Since female orangutan go seven to nine years in between pregnancies, it's also very unique to see 1-year-olds together the way Mila and Max are at the Center.

Aug 02
A Home for Wildlife

By Nina Evans

The White River Gardens is a National Wildlife Federation (NWF) Certified Wildlife Habitat garden. You can do this in your own yard, too. To be certified you need to be able to provide all the necessities of life for wild animals. The things that must be present are food (nectar, seeds, nuts, fruit, berries, foliage, pollen and insect food), water (for drinking, bathing and breeding ), cover (places to shelter and hide), and places to raise young. Recently the NWF has added "Sustainable Practices" to their list of requirements.  Those are soil and water conservation, controlling exotic species and organic practices. Because of our large collection of plants, our numerous water features (especially in the Gardens), and the responsible treatment of our landscape, the Indianapolis Zoo and White River Gardens are home to many different wild animal species, and are good places for others to visit!

So what might you see on your next trip here? 

Hello Birdie!

Birds​ love us! Even this juvenile hawk thought the Gardens was a nice place to hang out for a couple of days a while back.

Caterpillars Become Butterflies​

You might just notice a caterpillar like this one, which will become a black swallowtail butterfly. You'll certainly see some of the many types of butterflies and moths that frequent our gardens!

We Welcome Bees

There are so many different bees, wasps and hornets moving pollen from one plant to another or feeding on other insects that eat our plants. Catmint ('White Cloud') is one of many plants that attracts pollinators.​​ 

Garden Helpers 

Thought by some to be frightening, there are lots of creatures that will help you out in your garden, such as spiders, some small native snakes, and other "bad bug" eaters like praying mantises and cicada killers. 

Four Legged Foragers

Rabbits, chipmunks and squirrels may do more eating of plants than we like, but their antics are delightful to watch. Usually well hidden from view are the raccoons, and the occasional groundhog, fox, or muskrat that may live here.

Water Lovers

Our w​​ater features in the White River Gardens have been around long enough that native pond species have found their way here, especially dragonflies, frogs, and a turtle or two. 

Jul 24
A Celebration of Salvias!

By Nina Evans

Chances are you have used salvias in your garden or have admired them in a planting of your neighbor's, at a public garden, or in the wild. Beauty, utility, variety, toughness and a propensity to attract hummingbirds make them wonderful to use as ornamentals in the cultivated planting. A few species are most commonly sold as annuals for our Indiana gardens, especially Salvia splendens (called scarlet sage, though its pointy-petaled flowers come in all sorts of colors!) and Salvia farinacea (called mealycup sage- think of 'Victoria blue'). And there are many staples as perennials for us, like S. nemorosa ('Ostfreisland' or East Friesland, and 'Caradonna', among others), and S. officinalis (the edible sage). But most of us are barely brushing the surface of gorgeous salvias we can be using!

We are celebrating the summer with a plethora of non-hardy salvias in the Allen W. Clowes Water Garden. Each of the four beds there have a different color scheme of three salvias, all of them accompanied by foxtail asparagus fern (Asparagus deniflorus 'Myersii') and white lantana (Lantana camara 'Landmark white'). Salvia spendens does make an appearance in several colors and heights, but there are also a few you may not be familiar with. Take it from me, it was very hard to filter the choices down to just these 12!

Our Celebration of Salvias

Bed one (closest to the spitting frogs water feature)

Salvia farinacea 'Evolution' — A more compact plant than 'Victoria blue' (14-20 inches tall) with lots of stalks of small, violet–colored flowers.

Salvia guaranitica (anise-scented sage) 'Black and Bloom' — Touted as an improvement over 'Black and Blue' because of its earlier bloom and larger flowers, it can get over 3 feet tall in the right conditions.

Salvia greggii (autumn sage) 'Wild Thing' — Native to Texas and northern Mexico, this bushy plant around 2 feet tall has vivid hot pink flowers.

Bed two

Salvia 'Dancing Flame' — A 2- to 3-foot-tall plant of some uncertain origin, it boasts vibrant red flowers over dark green a and gold variegated leaves.

Salvia splendens 'Vista lavender' — A unique lavender flower color on plants up to a foot tall.

Salvia  splendens 'Lighthouse purple' — Two-toned darker purple flowers on a plant that can get up to 3 feet tall!

Bed three

Salvia splendens 'Red Flame' — Another tall salvia with vibrant red flowers.

Salvia splendens 'Vista Red and White' — The short one in this bed, it has unusual red and white striped flowers.

Salvia elegans (pineapple sage)'Golden Delicious' — A yellow-leaved version of the later-blooming pineapple sage, look for it to grow close to 3 feet tall.

Bed four (closest to the bench)

Salvia splendens 'Vista Salmon'— Another of that shorter Vista series, it has unusual salmon colored flowers.

Salvia 'Balsalmisp' (Mystic Spires Blue) — This lovely creation is the result of a cross between Salvia  longispicata  and S. farinacea, sporting purple-blue flower stalks on plants that get to be a good 3 feet tall.

Salvia coccinea (Hummingbird sage) 'Coral Nymph'- A medium-height plant with delicate salmon and pink flowers.

Behind the bench

Salvia miniata (Belize sage) — Its shiny olive-green leaves and luminous red-orange flowers make this salvia one of this gardener's favorites!

Jun 26
A Garden of Exploration and Fun!


By Nina Evans

When your family enters the White River Gardens, you will encounter a place where play, discovery and imagination are all around! Your adventure begins in the Hilbert Conservatory where butterflies drift in the air around you, unusual blooms grab your attention and lush planting create the feeling that you have entered a tropical jungle. You can even hear the sounds of hidden insects chirping away!

Walk outside and the child among (and in!) you will feel invited to play with the Gardens' many water features. The carved boulder-like fountains in the Knot Garden trickle with water you and the birds will find hard to resist. Water splashes noisily at the head of the stream in the Sun Garden, culminating in a tranquil pool where you are likely to spot a goldfish, frog, or even a snapping turtle!  And in the Allen W. Clowes Water Garden you'll encounter a stone table with a tantalizing watery tablecloth, a bronze heron doing the backstroke, and relaxing frog sculptures that "spit" arching streams of water into a rocky pool.

There is much to discover in the Polly Horton Hix Design Gardens. In the Sunken Garden you step down into a patchwork grid of planting beds filled with herbs that are asking to be touched and smelled. As you wander about, keep your eyes open for the tortoise and the hare, two of the many whimsical bronze creatures found all throughout the Gardens. New this year are a garden showing tips for gardening in small spaces (City Garden), another demonstrating ways you can keep some of your big plants smaller (Pruning Garden), and a bed full of plants that were used by our area's Native Americans (Cultural Garden). 

Explore the Sun Garden to find plants of all shapes and sizes. Birds, bees and butterflies can be spotted all around, as providing food and egg laying plants for pollinators in very important for all of us! And the adventurous can cross the stream over large stepping stones that appear to be floating on the water!

From the excitement of creating your own giant sand art in the Indianapolis Zoo Guild Heritage Garden to the restful coolness of the Ruth Lilly Shade Garden, you and your children can share together in the unique experience that is the White River Gardens!

Jun 22
Painting with a Purpose

How can a field trip create a future for endangered species? Give a little paint to a very special group of students, like the third graders of River Birch Elementary in Avon, and that's exactly how.

What began as an overnight field trip to the Indianapolis Zoo in April became a commitment to conservation in the classroom. Inspired by many of the animals' stories, the students began asking how they could help protect wild things and wild places.

With the school year's end fast approaching the students decided to take action. They read books about conservation, learning more about deforestation, water supply and renewable and non-renewable energy. Many began keeping a close eye on ingredients in their cafeteria snacks, doing their best to avoid palm oil after learning about the plight of orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra.

To help animals directly, the classes came together to create paintings, raising funds for the species the Zoo cares for here in Indianapolis and far beyond. Their efforts raised more than $350!

 "Although we planned to study conservation when we returned from the Zoo, we never thought it would go this far," said teacher Jennifer Miner. "A few weeks into our study we knew this unit was going to be a great opportunity to lead our kids into taking a critical stance about something they cared about."

The Zoo is proud to see dedicated young conservationists playing their part!  ​

May 23
Greening Up

​By Jeff Hansen
Horticulture Department

When visiting the Indianapolis Zoo, there is a lot to see around the Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center. As you ride the Skyline or watch the orangutans climb their trail, have you ever taken a glance at what is on top of the iconic structure? It is probably one of the less noticed gems of the Zoo. As part of its original "green" design, two green roofs totaling approximately 6,400 square feet make up the majority of the roof structure of the SSIOC. Also known as a living roof, a green roof is comprised of plant life that is planted in a lightweight substrate chosen for its good drainage and its ability to be supported by the building. Drainage is key, for if water were retained by the substrate it would create a much larger weight load on the building. Beneath the substrate is a waterproofing membrane that ensures water runs off the building instead of inside.

Plants chosen for green roofs have to meet certain requirements. They need to be drought tolerant, love sunlight, have good cold hardiness and wind tolerance, and it's always nice if they are attractive to the eye. A very common plant chosen for this purpose is sedum, and our green roofs are no exception. Twelve varieties of sedum make up our planting, including Sedum sexangulare, Sedum reflexum 'Blue Spruce,' and Sedum spurium 'Red Carpet.' Sedum meets all the criteria that are necessary to thrive in the green roof setting and makes it an ideal plant to use. Plus, there are so many species and cultivars of sedum that it gives a lot of room for creativity in designing the green roof landscape.

Scientific studies have shown that green roofs have a significant impact on climate control energy costs of the building they are installed on. One study showed that there can be as much as a 25% reduction in heating costs in the winter, as well as a 25% reduction in cooling costs in the summer due to reflection of solar radiation. Transpiration by plants in green roof systems contributes greatly to this, which is the process of water molecules being released from the plant. This creates a cooling effect for the plants as well as the building in summer.  In sedum, this transpiration process will occur when moisture levels are high enough, but during periods of drought sedum plants will conserve their water and not allow for transpiration to occur during the daytime. This is what makes them such drought tolerant plants and ideal candidates for green roof systems.

Another major green aspect of the International Orangutan Center green roofs deals with water. When precipitation occurs, the sedum take up water, but most of the rain water ends up running off the building because of the well-draining substrate. This water is then collected into massive 10,000 gallon underground storage tanks. In fact, most of the storm drains immediately around the Orangutan Center direct rain water to these cisterns. This water is then used in the landscape irrigation system to water the surrounding plant life, essentially acting as a massive rain barrel.

The next time you visit the Zoo and are watching Rocky or Basan climb around their impressive home, take a moment to also appreciate the green roofs. Their impact on the Indianapolis Zoo is much bigger than most people know. ​​

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