Latin American Theme Garden

This is part two of my series featuring the incredibly creative Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens.  Last post I shared some creative container ideas, and today I'll be sharing some inspiration for recreating an exotic locale by incorporating plants into a convincingly authentic setting... like the Neotropics for example!  This Latin American Garden is hot!

Aechmea Blanchetiana
First, a little background on the source of all this yummy inspiration.  Since 2003, the Jacksonville Zoo has endeavored to become a destination botanical garden, and has created large gardens such as Savanna Blooms as well as integrated "pocket gardens" throughout the paths and exhibits.  Thanks to the ingenuity of the landscape designers and the staff, they're well on their way to becoming a premier destination.

In 2005 this exhibit was awarded Exhibit of the Year by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and its really no wonder.  From the minute you enter this replica of a Latin American town, you already feel like you've stepped into another country! 

The Palm Plaza greets you with terra cotta roofs, ancient looking walls, and hand painted signs in bright colors to entice you to try some "refrescos".  (You can easily hand paint your own signage on wood to recreate this playful touch, and there are plenty of awesome paint treatments you can use to give your walls an aged patina.)

Sure, as expected, the food prices are steep.  It's worth the sacrifice though, just so you can eat under the palm trees or inside with the air conditioning, where you can look directly into the Jaguar exhibit.

The jaguars, river otters, and nutrias are remarkable in themselves, but the brilliant environmental design and plantings are what make it all convincing.  To give the illusion of age, the town's walls were painted in layers over cracks, and different layers were allowed to show through the outer coat.  Stone walls are laid at a steep angle much like Mayan walls, and succulents like aloe and dyckia are allowed to grow in the cracks and ramble over the edge to soften the harsh edges. 

To add to the convincing hardscaping and ornament, the plants chosen were mostly Latin American as well.  If you want to see the northernmost Jacaranda tree, this is probably your best bet.  Underneath the canopy of palms, exotic and native trees, you'll find lush plantings of tropical flowering shrubs, gingers, bromeliads and palms.

Flowering shrubs from the Americas like Dwarf Poinciana (caesalpinia) and Powderpuff (calliandra) create bursts of color along the intentionally slapdash looking wooden edging, and reasonably cold hardy feather palm trees such as chamaedorea microspadix and seashore palm provide a lush backdrop.

 The cold tolerant bromeliads that they took advantage of include aechmea gamosepala, aechmea distichantha, billbergias, neoregelias, a bunch of dyckias, and several different forms of each species as well.  Bromeliads are some of the best plants to incorporate into a Latin American theme garden, since they hail almost exclusively from the Americas.

Under a Sycamore tree you'll find a scarlet macaw alongside a scarlet ball of hanging neoregelias.  This is a great idea that you can incorporate in your garden, and these prolific puppers will create a sizable clump in no time!

The crown jewel of The Range of the Jaguar is the jaguar.  However, this huge mayan temple really steals the show from those sleepy big cats!  Trees, shrubs and succulents are grown on each of the terraces to really create the look of a ruined temple, covered with centuries of jungle growth. Ornamental details take on the guise of abandoned archaeologist's equipment like wooden supports, mining lamps, and even that dyckia suspended from a crane that I shared in the last post! 

Even if you can't make the trip, I hope you found some great ideas that you can implement in your own garden and be sure to share your own ideas in the comments too.  Also, be sure to check out my guest post on vertical gardening over at Life on the Balcony

For more inspiration...


  1. This is VERY cool! Thanks for sharing. I love places like this when I travel. It looks like a really great place to escape.

  2. I just told my husband and DIL that we need to plan a trip!!! Hehehe...

  3. Plant heaven! Loving the blooming aloe and bromeliads going on.

  4. Love love love it. If you're ever in CA, I will take you by my friend Brads garden and I think you will love love love it — check it —

  5. Rohrerbot:
    Glad you liked it! My most exciting experience ever was visiting the San Diego Zoo as a kid.

    You really should! I'm not sure any other zoo in Florida utilizes plants to such a great extent, and I hope this catches on.

    Aren't they great? The aechmea blanchetiana was blooming last year during another trip, and its one of my favorite photos.

    I LOVED those photos and am really excited to think that my own bromeliads might fill every corner of the garden someday!

  6. That is an awesome place! Very authentic Central American feel. I'd certainly pay extra money to dine on that patio. (I think you should've showed us a pic of the jaguar, though.)

    Great photos by the way. Loved the flower close-ups. Also love the aloes growing on the walls, although it doesn't look too comfy for someone using the rail.

  7. Floridagirl: I was too busy shooting the plants to even THINK about the jaguar! Don't worry, I'll share pics of an Amur leopard cub in another post. And the handrail? I think it wasn't meant to be functional. There was just one step past the rail so it was kind of unnecessary. Maybe it was put there to make it look grown over.


Please feel free to share your questions, ideas and suggestions!