Mar 12
It's a Jungle in There!

By Nina L. Evans, Horticulturist

A rainforest-like display of the Indianapolis Zoo's tropical plant collection –  that is what you will encounter in the Hilbert Conservatory, home to Butterfly Kaleidoscope.  ​​​

For many years the Zoo's Horticulture Department did major change-outs of plants two to four times a year. While that meant beautiful, themed displays of smaller tropical plants, there was also no opportunity for them to grow larger and more mature.

We still do change-out of plants for shows like Butterfly Kaleidoscope and Santa's Tropical Adventure, though recently we have focused on leaving most of them in place, creating a "tropical jungle" of some amazingly large plants! Many are giant versions of houseplants you may have at home, while others are unique specimens you likely won't see elsewhere.

For example, Epiprenum areum, known as money plant and in some Asian countries is known to bring good luck, devil's ivy which can be incredibly invasive in frost-free areas outside its Soloman Islands home and pothos the name you probably know it by, are all plants you could find around your home. Usually, pothos will grow only juvenile leaves, which are up to 4 inches long. In the Hilbert Conservatory, some of our plants' stems have grown very thick and the leaves VERY large — up to the same 30 inches long you would find in the wild. Look for it traveling up columns, on the railing of the stairs to the mezzanine level and on cables across the space above your head. It's becoming so mature we think it might even bloom one of these days!

One of the most eye-catching specimens in our Conservatory now is a recently acquired banana plant- Musa x paradisiacal 'Ae Ae'. What makes it unusual is it's a cultivar with gorgeous, variegated green and white leaves. It was originally owned only by Hawaiian royalty and is still relatively rare because the plant is hard to grow. 'Ae Ae' can get to be 15' tall and will produce variegated fruit once it has 9-12 leaves on its pseudostem (trunk).  It takes a little shade to help keep those pretty leaves from burning, making the Conservatory environment a nice home for it.

So,​​ when you come to Butterfly Kaleidoscope this summer, we think you'll agree that there are some spectacular plants in our bit of jungle. Tropical forests, woods and woodland edges are the natural home of most of the butterfly species you will see in the Hilbert Conservatory from now through Sept. 3! 

Feb 26
Celebrating a Milestone Birthday for our Brown Bear

​By Jill Burbank

Senior Forests Keeper

We recently celebrated a special birthday in the Forest area here at the Indianapolis Zoo. Our female Alaskan brown bear, Kiak, turned the big 1-0 this winter!

Kiak has been a part of our Zoo family since 2008 when she was picked up by the DNR after she was orphaned when she was just a cub. While we don't know her exact date of birth, brown bear cubs are born in dens during January and February, so we knew Kiak was only a few months old when she was found.

Here at the Zoo, Kiak shares her habitat with her buddy, our male bear Mi-kal. While the bears are adorable and impressive to watch, they are also helping to raise awareness for an important conservation message — encountering a bear in the wild is something you want to avoid.

A bear's natural habitat is also a popular destination for people. Whether you are hiking, sightseeing or camping, you should always use caution and follow the Leave No Trace principles. This includes picking up and properly d​isposing of all trash, storing food in bear-safe containers while camping, and not approaching or feeding wildlife. When bears encounter humans in the wild, they become desensitized and less afraid, especially if they learn that people have food. That can be very dangerous for both people and bears.

Unfortunately, Kiak was orphaned after her mother had a dangerous interaction with people, which is all too common for bears in the wild. Since Kiak would not have survived on her own in the wild at her age, she placed here at the Indianapolis Zoo. We received Mi-kal, another orphaned cub, in 2010.

For the last 10 years, Kiak has been an incredible ambassador for her counterparts in the wild. Every day, she helps her keepers spread the message about conservation to our visitors. She also inspires people to care about species that may be hundreds of miles away. She has won the hearts of her keepers and guests with her sassy and ornery personality. She is very smart, playful and sometimes mischievous, often creeping up behind Mi-kal to swat him on the back side and then running away.

Thanks to everyone who visits Kiak here at the Indianapolis Zoo. We hope she brings a smile to your face as much as she does for her care staff on a daily basis. It's so important that we all learn how to help protect her counterparts in the wild as well as many other species that call the Zoo home. ​

Feb 16
Meet the Dogs Working to Save Cheetahs

​Dogs, everyone knows they're man's best friend. But did you know they can also be cheetahs' best friend?

Meet Solo and Ayla, our brother and sister kangal shepherds. Solo and Ayla serve as animal ambassadors here at the Indianapolis Zoo and help raise awareness for cheetah conservation.

Their large size, keen senses, intimidating bark and incredible strength make kangals ideal guard dogs. Though the breed originated in Turkey, conservationists have found they're also effective at keeping cheetahs away from farmers' livestock in Africa. These dogs are known to work in hot climates and stand between prey and predator as an intimidating presence, keeping the cheetahs at bay.  The Zoo works with the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia, placing kangals with farmers to help protect livestock. When the farmers have kangals, they feel less inclined to hunt or trap cheetahs.

Kangals are not a common breedin the United States, which makes Ayla and Solo very special! The brother-sister duo joined the Zoo's family 2009 at just eight weeks old, they are now 8 ​years old. Their size — Solo is much larger than Ayla — make them easy to distinguish. And you can also tell them apart by Solo's broader head and Ayla's social personality. 

Visitors at the Zoo can meet our kangal brother and sister during seasonal keeper chats in the Plains and learn more about cheetahs and our conservation efforts

Kangal Fast Facts:


  • Weigh between 100-150 pounds

  • Grow between 28-32 inches

  • Lifespan of 12-15 years

  • Native to farmlands in Turkey​


Feb 12
Be Cautious when Topping Trees

Many tree trimmers practice a pruning technique called "topping", also referred to as canopy reduction, stubbing or height reduction. There is a misconception that trees can continually be pruned in this fashion and the tree will rejuvenate it's growth. What has been created is a high-maintenance, potentially hazardous tree that must be pruned regularly.

Plant scientists and certified arborist unanimously agree that there are several plant health issues associated with tree topping such as nutrient stress and decay, this in turn leads to the tree producing shoots that develop into weekly attached branches. Over time these branches will grow in girth and weight and increase the risk of damage to people and property.

If you have questions or concerns regarding your trees, it is best to contact an arborist that is certified by the International Society of Arboriculture. ISA Certified Arborists are professionals trained and skilled in the proper care of trees. Visit their website to find an ISA certified arborist in your area.

Feb 07
Getting to the Heart of Relationships in the Animal Kingdom

Boxes of chocolates, bouquets of flowers, heart-shaped cards — expressions of love and romance are what Valentine’s Day is all about.

But the ideas of love, dating and relationships aren’t exclusive to the human world. Discover some fascinating fun facts about hearts, courtship and mating in the animal kingdom.

Straight From the Heart

For humans, hearts are synonymous with love and Valentine’s Day. But many animals have hearts that are specially suited to their size, shape and behavior.

African elephants have the largest heart of any land mammal, weighing on average between 26.5 to 46.3 pounds. The largest heart in all the animal kingdom belongs to the blue whale, whose heart can grow to the size of a small car and weigh up to 1,300 pounds.

Giraffes need an incredibly strong heart to pump blood throughout their long, lanky bodies. In fact, a giraffe’s heart generates twice the blood pressure of a human heart.

For a cheetah to achieve its incredible bursts of speed, its heart rate will more than double — accelerating from 120 bpm to 250 bpm — in mere seconds.

And it seems that some snakes really love … eating, that is. A python’s heart will actually increase in size, swelling up to 40 percent before a meal then shrinking back down again afterward.

Animal Magnetism

Like humans, animals have developed interesting rituals for courtship.

Male and female seahorses swim side by side, encircling one another and holding tails before engaging in their “courtship dance.” After the days-long display is over, it’s the male that carries the eggs in his pouch and eventually gives birth.

Humans may be intimidated when approaching a potential mate for the first time, but male spotted hyenas are putting their lives at risk. Female hyenas call the shots in the courtship because they are significantly stronger and more aggressive than males. So when a male hyena approaches a new female, he does so very cautiously and retreats as soon as she notices him. He will then only try to mate when he’s reasonably confident he won’t be attacked.

While humans may sprits on cologne before a big date, ring-tailed lemurs prefer something a little more pungent. Male lemurs engage in "stink fights" by rubbing scent from their glands onto their tails then waving them at each other to waft the smell. The winner is the lemur that can stink out his opponent and catch a female’s attention.

When it comes to attracting a mate, it often comes down to looks.

Peacocks are known for their showy plumage. Males fan out their brilliant tail feathers and strut about to attract females, who seem to prefer the male with the biggest and brightest train.

As an orangutan male reaches maturity, he begins to grow long hair and develop fleshy cheek pads called flanges. These traits appear more prominently in some males more than others, and in certain cases not at all. But females definitely show preference to the males with big flanges and long hair.

Status: In a Relationship

Though long-term relationships are pretty rare in the animal kingdom, many species are able to manage monogamy, mating either for life or at least extended periods.

As they swing through the forests in search of a potential partner, gibbons sing using loud calls that can be heard for long distances. But once they've found a mate, the songs change. Gibbons are mainly monogamous, and mated pairs will sing elaborate daily duets — each individual with its own part — to let other gibbons in the area know they’re off the market.

When it’s time to take a relationship to the next level, humans aren’t the only ones who declare their intensions by presenting their mate with a big rock. But while people prefer diamonds and other precious gems, male gentoo penguins scour for pretty pebbles to win over the females. If she accepts, she’ll place the pebble inside her nest, or she may choose to wait for a better offer. Either way, once a female chooses her male, gentoos generally mate for life.

And nothing says commitment quite like building a big home together. Bald eagles will build large nests that average about 5 feet in diameter. Nesting pairs will often return to the same nest year after year, building on a little bit each time, so nests can eventually become enormous. In fact, the largest bald eagle nest ever found was more than 9 feet wide, 20 feet high and weighed more than 2 tons!

Feb 02
Caring for Critters in Cold Weather

Winter’s big chill brings some unique challenges when it comes to caring for our animals. And our dedicated team works hard to ensure all our animals are safe and happy throughout the coldest months of the year.

Some species, especially those in our Forests and outdoor Oceans exhibits, welcome the frosty mornings and snowy days in January and February. Animals like Amur tigers, Alaskan brown bears, California sea lions, Pacific walrus, red pandas and others are native to colder climates and are perfectly at home in Indiana’s chilly winter weather.

These species all have certain adaptations, like thick fur or layers of blubber, to help them handle the harsh conditions. Yet, we also make accommodations within their Zoo habitats to help keep our animals comfortable in the cold.

For instance, one of the rocks inside the Tiger Forest is heated to give these big cats a warm, dry spot to lie down. And the pools inside the marine mammal exhibits are temperature regulated so that our walrus and sea lions can swim in comfort. Our animal care team also offers enrichment to help keep our animals active when they're outdoors.

Ice and snow are nothing new for these cold-weather critters, yet slick conditions are still a concern. Just like humans, animals can be injured if they slip on ice or mud. So the water features in many of the exhibits are drained in the winter to prevent them from freezing, and keepers inspect exhibits daily to ensure pathways are free from ice or other hazards. If the exhibit conditions are too slick, the keepers will hold animals indoors where they’ll be safe and warm.

For species that prefer more moderate temperatures, like those in our Plains and Flights of Fancy exhibits, we provide warmth and protection inside climate-controlled off-exhibit facilities. During the winter months, our care team ensures these animals remain both physically and mentally active by providing engaging enrichment activities. And on those welcome days when warmer temperatures take over, even these animals will enjoy the outdoors.

Although some exhibits will be closed with animals inside on colder days, winter is still a great time for a visit. Our cold-weather critters tend to be more active at this time of year than they are during the warmer months. Of course, all of the Zoo’s indoor exhibits remain open, including the Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center, Oceans, Desert Dome and St. Vincent Dolphin Pavilion and Hilbert Conservatory. Plus, with lighter crowds from January through mid-March, guests can enjoy more personal interactions with our animals.

So bundle up and come enjoy an epic winter adventure at the Zoo.

Jan 03
Bring Natural Beauty into Your Home with Mini Hanging Planters

By Nina Evans

​Hanging planters can be a great way to bring the beauty of the outdoors into your home, especially in the winter when there's not much green to be found. Several mini planters can be grouped together for a unique arrangement or a single one placed as an accent in a small spot. And they are not hard to make.

Select your materials

  • Plants — Epiphytes (plants that don't need soil), succulents or other drought-tolerant plants work well. Plants that like more moisture will need extra effort in watering and moisture retention. For baskets we've created for the Hilbert Conservatory, we used a striped American agave (Agave americana), black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens'), Graptosedum 'Vera Higgins' and Sedum spurium 'Red Carpet'.

  • Containers — You can use smaller baskets, wood pieces or other structures to hold your plants, or no container at all. The options are pretty endless.

  • Moss — Good for water retention and lining containers, we suggest dried sheet moss and dried long-fibered sphagnum moss. You can generally get these mosses at garden centers or big box stores that sell house plants.

  • Fishing line — A small diameter line (10-15 lb.) is great for wrapping plants and moss, while a heavier size is best to hang your completed planter.

  • Scissors or hand pruners.

  • Potting mix

  • Decorative mulch or stones (optional)

Create your planter

Step 1 — Fill a bucket or sink with a few inches of water and soak your moss for a couple minutes until it absorbs plenty of moisture.

Step 2 — Depending on the container you've chosen, you may need to remove extra soil, cut away part of the root ball or divide the plant if it has multiple stems to use.

Step 3 —Line the container with a layer of damp sheet moss, leaving no holes. For plants that can't handle dryness, add a lightweight liner inside the moss that will help hold the water. We like reusing materials like the bottom of an empty soda bottle, the pot wrapper on store-bought house plants or pieces of a plastic grocery bag.

Step 4 — If your container is deeper than the container your plant(s) came out of, pack some to get it to the right height. Then insert your plant and pack damp moss in around it to fill the space. If you like, add a decorative mulch such as small wood chips, marbles, stones, etc., on top of the moss.

Non-traditional containers

Try using a piece of wood as the base for your planter. Just cut the root ball of the plants down some, pack damp moss under and around your plants and cover that moss and the plants' roots with sheet moss. Then use your lighter weight fishing line to wrap the moss and plants snuggly all around the wood, tying it securely to hold everything in place.

No container at all!

Create a moss ball planter by placing your plants on a piece of damp sheet moss large enough to wrap up around them. Draw your large sheet moss up and around the plant, adding more moss and even some potting mix to create a fairly solid, rounded mass. Finish by wrapping fine fishing line snuggly around (and around and around) the moss and plant roots, then tie in place. 

Hanging your new mini planter

You can use regular basket hangers, wire, heavier fishing line, or whatever else suits your decor. Then maintain your living creation by watering regularly as the moss starts to dry out. In the end, you will have a charming and unique mini planter for your home or patio!

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.

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