Jacksonville Zoo are always popping up, but you'll have to literally take a train to see the horticultural team's newest accomplishment - the zoo's train, that is. I eagerly showed up at the zoo bright and early in the rain to get a behind the scenes tour of a new succulent garden that can only be viewed from the zoo's train tour. Here's an exclusive first look at one of the zoo's hidden gems, as well as their original succulent garden.
The moment I stepped out of my car and into the rain, Chris Dailey swooped around in a golf cart to greet me. Chris is the zoo's horticultural manager who led me on a tour last year so that I could share all of those neat DIY ideas from the zoo's creative staff.
Past the fierce and toothy Dyckia plantings in the parking lot we drove, right into what looked like nothing more than a clearing in the shrubs. Once Chris said the magic words, had his retina scanned or flipped a secret switch, a camouflaged wooden gate began to slowly open up to a jungly path and the songs of rain-drunk songbirds. "Welcome... to Jurassic Park."
At least that's what I halfway expected my guide to say, because to me, seeing the zoo's collection of succulents and spiky plants was on par with watching a grazing herd of Brachiosaurus dinosaurs or more appropriately, a vicious pack of velociraptors.
We zipped right by within a few feet of a jaguar at the rear of the Range of the Jaguar exhibit, pacing back and forth behind the not-so-formidable looking chain-link fence, and I wondered what he thought of us cutting through his backyard in a golf cart. Maybe not 'get off my lawn!' but something along the lines of 'crazy dad-gum kids' at the very least.
Our destination was an elongated patch of rocks along the zoo's railroad tracks, newly planted with all sorts of succulents, cacti and Euphorbia. Chris introduced me to the designer of the garden himself, David Parker-Blackburn, before setting me loose to take advantage of a break in the rain to shoot closeups of raindrops on agave leaves.
Situated on an empty stretch between the jaguar and giraffe exhibits, the new garden gives visitors a bit of scenery and interest in an otherwise barren and uninteresting area. Many of the plants had been transplanted from other parts of the zoo, but as Chris and David started excitedly pulled up tag tags to recall their exotic sounding cultivar names as fashionistas would rattle off designer labels, I began to suspect that the pocket garden was just an excuse to go plant shopping. It was nice to be in the company of other plant geeks.
Here in Northeast Florida it's hard to find big plantings of succulents. It's too cold in winter, yet too wet and humid in summer for many of them to thrive. It's for that very reason that David considered this a 'test garden,' where they could try out succulents that aren't typically sold in our area. The first plant I noticed was a familiar face from my trip to Arizona, the purple prickly pear cactus (Opuntia violacea), and it was one of those plants that would be a bit of an experiment.
As the plantings were meant to be seen from the railroad tracks, taller plants like yuccas and the larger agaves (Agave americana) were placed at the rear of the planting. The most impressive planting was a tapestry of succulents such as Echeveria and Kalanchoe, and it received pride of place as the first thing viewers would see from the train. The large boulder at the foot of some old rails was only there to prevent vehicles from cutting into the gardens, but it also serves to direct the eye towards the plantings in a clever way.
When I had finally taken photos of every dew-bedazzled echeveria, Chris led the way to the main path near Savanna Blooms, the other (and original) succulent garden on the property. Guarding the path, however, was a man-eating reptile.
Okay, so it wasn't that big, but I did feel pretty proud of myself for heroically snatching up the reptilian menace and casting it off into the shrubs where it could make its escape. I know that the ready-to-strike pose and wide open mouth was meant to be scary, but the effect was cute and almost comical. Kind of like a Muppet.
While the train track succulent garden was meant to be seen at a distance and in motion, the pocket garden near Savanna Blooms is better suited for leisurely perusing through the collection while strollers and excitable children wander past. What I like most about this area is how the horticulture staff has managed to lend a distinctively 'Florida' style by setting the dramatic forms and shades of the succulents against a lush backdrop of creeping fig and bamboo on one side of the path, and shrubs on the other. Bright blue glazed pots hold some of the more tender and unusual specimens, also adding a pop of color and interest to the setting.
Before long we headed to the next stop on our informal tour, but I'll save that for another blog post or two. If you can't wait to read more about the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, here are some other posts I have written!
Container Garden Ideas
Range of the Jaguar
Learning to Take Better Garden Photos
7 Garden DIY Ideas