If you know anything about the famous Cincinnati Zoo, it may be thanks to its photo- and video-genic baby hippos, like Fiona and Fritz above. I follow the Zoo on Twitter, where fans get to know them and dozens of other cool animals. Hands down, it’s the happiest part of my mostly-politics Twitter feed.

Digging online a bit I found out that the zoo is famous for more than hippos. “The Zoo was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1987 due to its significant architecture featured in the Elephant House, the Reptile House, and the Passenger Pigeon Memorial. The Zoo’s Reptile House is the oldest existing Zoo building in the country, dating from 1875.” Source.
And I see it gets voted “Best Zoo,” period:
USA TODAY’s 10Best editors announced today that Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden once again took the top spot in the Best Zoo category in its 2022 Readers’ Choice poll! It also earned the number two spot in the 10Best Botanical Garden category. The Cincinnati Zoo has been voted the best zoo in the nation by USA Today’s 2022 10 Best Readers’ Choice poll. It’s the second year in a row the zoo made the top of the list. Source.

But back to the baby hippo! Primed as I was by his birth and every single move (seemingly), I was psyched to see him when the zoo’s Manager of Botanical Garden Outreach, GardenRant’s own Scott Beuerlein, invited me to attend the Plant Trials Symposium last month, enticing me with the fact that several of my friends would be attending and partying there. The symposium took place in the Education Center shown above.

Who knew that zoos even had horticultural education events? (Okay, there may be others, this is the only one with Scott making it happen in his inimitable style.)

Outside that center, a plant-growing demonstration, seen early morning.

And seen throughout, the zoo speaks up for plants.

I got to tour the zoo before the public was let in (heaven!!) and was struck by the naturalism of the animals’ surroundings. Like the savannah above, a gorgeous scene being observed by the lion below. It’s nothing like the bad old zoos that I remember, with their depressing views of animals behind bars.

About the Botanic Garden Part

Curious about the beautiful landscapes at the zoo in the middle of this impressively big city and the unusual combination of zoo with botanic garden, I bugged Landscape Director Steve Foltz to explain it all. He agreed that “for a zoo in a very urban site, but it doesn’t feel like that.”

Impala with ostriches

He told me that at the inception of zoo in 1873, Cincinnati’s superintendent of parks Adolf Strauch proclaimed that he wanted an experimental garden as part of the zoo, and that mission has been honored, including by its robust horticultural outreach.

But Cincinnati isn’t alone in combining a zoo with a botanic garden; there’s an association for them – the Association of Zoological Horticulture.  Steve says they help each other with tips like “Do kangaroos eat bark?” But he noted that sometimes  the horticulture isn’t as integrated with the animals as it is in Cincinnati. Apparently there are zoo architects (a specialty I didn’t realize exists, but of course) who don’t see horticulture and animals in an integrated way.

Eastern white pelicans

While horticulture has mattered at the zoo from the start, it has evolved over the years (as it has everywhere, right?) Where once it emphasized colorful plants with labels throughout, when Dave Erlinger took over in the late ’70s he “brought back good horticulture.” Steve then arrived in ’88 and has gradually turned it into the up-to-date and thoroughly integrated landscape we see today. It happens through the work of 12-13 staff horticulturists, including those working at their nursery farm, which grows plants not just for human enjoyment but to feed about 30 animals, too. (Lots of branches).

Steve stresses that good hiring is key to great horticulture. They look for people who love plants and are just nice, and their internship program is packed with young people like that, many of them found through the excellent horticulture programs at Cincinnati State and University of Cincinnati.

The zoo also uses in-house architects and engineers to design their spaces, unlike so many zoos that hire out for design.

Where they Shop for Habitat Plants

Steve explained that in choosing plants for habitats, their goal is to mimic the animal’s natural habitat, among these general regions: African plains, Asia, and native American. But plants also have to stand up to being stepped on by large animals, and they have to be safe for the animals to eat. So “It’s trial and error.”
I can only imagine.

Steve gives full credit for the success of their plants to the terrific nursery people they buy from, especially Bill Hendrex at Klyn Nurseries in Perry Ohio (northeast of Cleveland), who has a “phenomenal relationship” with the zoo. “He’s our secret sauce.” Hendrex supplies many zoos and caters to them, offering 20 kinds of bamboo, for example.

Funding the Zoo and Botanic Garden

The zoo gets approximately 1.7 million visitors a year and it’s that gate – plus parking, food, merchandise, etc – that provides most of the budget (plus a contribution from the county).

But what surprised me was learning that the botanic garden part of this whole enterprise is just 3-4 percent of zoo’s whole budget!  That includes the educational center and all the top-notch speakers that come there for plant trials symposia and who knows what else. Oh, and Scott’s salary.

But what helps a lot, Steve tells me, are the many many horticultural volunteers at the zoo – from UC, Cincy State, corporate groups and other assorted organizations.

More Photos…

American eagles

I bet the market does good business, and the gift shop, too. Hippo-related items especially!

I got awfully close to this tiger splashing around – on the other side of bird-proof glass (thus the green dots). When he turned around to look me in the eyes – just wow.

Spotted on my walk from the hotel to the zoo, the University of Cincinnati’s Horticulture Department would definitely catch my eye if I were a student there.

More Cincinnati Adventures

Look away now if you like to gardening content only on garden blogs because I can’t resist showing you two other highlights of my first-ever visit to the city.

Union Terminal! I’d seen the facade of this stunning train station in a course I attended (tuition-free) on American architecture, and was dying to see the inside. I drove there at 6 a.m., before sunrise, and it was open! And completely empty of people!

So worth getting up early for.

Greenhills, a Sister New Deal Town

A close-in suburb of Cincinnati just happens to be Greenhills, one of three planned towns created by a New Deal agency back in the ’30s, along with my town Greenbelt, Md. and Greendale, Wis.  (All originally surrounded by forest, they’re called greenbelt towns.)

During my too-brief visit there the mayor gave me a tour and he’s also helping me write my report on Greenhills for local media. Our town paper has a tradition of publishing photos of residents who’ve traveled somewhere, posing with a copy of the historic weekly, so I dutifully held the paper up for a shot and got one of the mayor, too.

My Summer of Road Trips

There’s no question that my 8-plus-hour drive westward to Lexington, quick drive to Cincinnati and then 8-plus-hour drive home were worth every minute of body aches they may have caused. Just like my 6-hour drive to the Cleveland area in June. It seemed odd to take two trips to Ohio in one summer but they were long overdue.