Nothing gives plants more meaning and magic than seeing how they get along with the rest of the natural world. For Stephen Butler, coping with “a constant state of war between plants and animals or insects” was vital to his job as head gardener and curator of horticulture at Dublin Zoo.
Tackle the giraffes’ appetite for the youngest and tallest leaves of the African acacia. Acacia trees grow long thorns as a defense, but giraffes have long tongues to get around them.
Some species of acacia grow hollow spines, occupied by a particular species of ant. If the tree is besieged by a grazing giraffe, the ants rush in to bite its nose in discouragement. In return, the acacia provides food for ants on the tips of its small leaflets.
Such glimpses of nature’s hidden warfare pepper the pages of Butler’s Gardening for Gorillas: Trials, Tricks and Triumphs of a Zoo Horticulturalist. This exceptional book follows 37 years of creating habitats that have helped make one of the oldest zoos in the world a modern and international model.
Arriving in Dublin after years of study at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Butler found a Victorian zoo with no attempt to connect the animals to their natural surroundings. Their enclosures lacked meaning or ecological enrichment. The ground of the zoo was trampled hard, especially by its marauding geese, and the shores of the lake were strewn with discarded scrap metal.
In his relaxed and gleefully idiomatic tale (“Okay, that’s settled, then”), Butler tackles the practical logistics of landscaping. It hid buildings and fences and gave animals and visitors a densely planted experience that mirrored distant places – scorching rainforest, flowery savannah, orangutan jungle.
The habitat of the gorillas presented particular problems, as their normal behavior is a challenge for the design of permanent gardens. They eat most of the day, roam widely in search of plant food, and break or tear off anything they please. In the pasture, which they do a lot, they often pull up whole grasses to chew on.
The animal team working on the gorilla habitat saw all of this as a valuable “enrichment”. Many plantings seemed like a waste of time. And trying so-called “rabbit-proof” or “deer-proof” plants risked poisoning the gorillas with toxins. It took a year of research to catalog the right trees, shrubs, herbs and grasses and find nurseries to supply them.
Butler’s preoccupation with plant poisons was important to his work. Some plants defend themselves with an off-putting bitterness. He was happy to find an example of this in the purple willow, Salix purpurea, whose sap is made repellent by salicylic acid, the source of aspirin. This was duly spat out by the gorillas and mangabey apes. They did, however, feast on the willow’s spring catkins, apparently free of aspirin.
A habitat for flamingos suggested something more exotic, with spectacular leaves. Butler turned to varieties of giant gunnera, an ancient genus of plants that crossed the southern hemisphere. As a cultivated garden escape in Connacht, one species (Gunnera tinctoria) became an invasive alien species. The zoo has therefore used another (Gunnera manicata) which has not yet produced a seed.
Bamboos thrive in the zoo, hiding the buildings and giving the animals a chance to relax out of the public eye. Adapted to the striped camouflage of the tigers, the bamboos must be planted in clumps, giving way to the desire of the big cats to follow regular paths.
Butler’s love of plants and their transformative power is evident in the book’s illustrations. He laments that “many people suffer from ‘plant blindness’, the inability to notice plants in their surroundings”. Its relationships to dozens of species range from the tough, inedible, satin-flowered Libertia to common plants with uncommon appetites. The gorillas gathered armfuls of red clover in a plant-by-plant harvest that threatened to obliterate its presence.
Even with the zoo’s own nursery for intensive propagation, buying enough trees, shrubs and flowers to plant an entirely new habitat could be costly. The pandemic hit the zoo’s finances, as visitors suddenly disappeared. Gardeners were considered an obvious economy, as the plants could surely take care of themselves for a while.
In 2020, the zoo issued a public appeal for money, warning that it may have to close. This prompted a politician’s question about the modern purpose of zoos versus the extra expense of preserving animal life in the wild.
But educating visitors in zoos strengthens public funding for conservation. Butler also cherishes the new animal freedoms embraced by zoos internationally, including the right to space and an environment in which to follow normal behavior.
The zoo’s appeal raised €1 million in one day and a promise of further government support. And the gorillas continue to lift leaves to randomly discover dandelions whose rosettes they appreciate.
Gardening for Gorillas (€35 hardcover) is sold at Dublin Zoo or from Stephen Butler via [email protected]