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News / Life / Travel

Tacoma zoo features plants, too

Animals share stage with exotic gardens that visitors can tour

By Craig Sailor, The News Tribune
Published: September 2, 2023, 5:52am

TACOMA — Step aside, tigers and polar bears. Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium has a plant collection that some might consider just as interesting as its critters.

For the past 17 years, the zoo’s lead horticulturalist, Bryon Jones, has been transforming the 29-acre zoo into a garden of delights for both its human visitors and its animal residents. Like the animals that reside there, many of the zoo’s plants are rare, colorful, endangered or exotic, and they put on quite a show during mating/flowering season.

Today, more than 1,000 species and cultivars populate the zoo grounds. That’s roughly three times the number of animal species living at the zoo.

“The goal hasn’t been the sheer number of plants and the diversity of the plants,” Jones said. “It’s been about looking for those plants that have those special stories.”

If You Go

What: Zoo botanical tours

When: First Sunday of each month at 10 a.m.

Where: Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, 5400 N. Pearl St., Tacoma. Meet at Pacific Rim Plaza, just inside front gate.

Cost: Free with price of zoo admission

More information: pdza.org/discover/plants/garden-tours

Jones offers monthly botanical tours, each with a different theme.

Desert section

One of the first plant areas to greet zoo visitors could be its most impressive. Just feet from the main entrance is a patch of artichoke agave (Agave parryi), century plants and other plants that appear like they’ve been ripped straight from a Mexican desert. Mixed in are plants from other dry parts of the world, including Mediterranean fan palms.

Jones uses both common and Latin names on his tours even if they are misnomers, like the century plant.

“It’s an illusion. They really don’t take a century to bloom,” he said. “Some of them bloom in as short as seven years. Some of them may take up to 20 to 30 years.”

The plants bloom just before they die, putting up a stalk as high as 30 feet. That’s taller than the zoo’s elephants.

Agaves have long served as a food source for some of Mexico’s indigenous population, and it’s the chief ingredient of mezcal and its popular derivative, tequila, but you won’t find either of those at the zoo.


Jones, 52, started at the zoo in 2005 and quickly began the transformation of perfunctory landscaping into botanical garden.

He gives tours the first Sunday of every month. The next, this weekend, is titled “Leafy and fruity hors d’oeurvres” and features the plants harvested for the zoo’s animals to eat and play with. Other tour subjects include plants that are considered to be living fossils, plants for pollinators, jungle foliage, and endangered and rare plants.

A favorite plant for zoo visitors is a monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) near the main entrance. The tree may be native to Chile, but it’s an icon of the Pacific Northwest. Jones encourages visitors to touch its origami-like foliage.

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“It actually is one of the most endangered plants in the world, even though we have a climate in the Pacific Northwest that allows us to grow it,” Jones said.

The tree, used for timber in Chile, dates back to the Jurassic Period and is featured on the living fossils tour.

Much rarer than the monkey puzzle is a nearby grove of Wollemi pines (Wollemia nobilis). This tree defines survivor.

Known only in fossils until its discovery in 1994 in an Australian national park, the Wollemi pine numbers fewer than 100 specimens in the wild. It dates back 91 million years and had been thought to have gone extinct 2 million years ago until it was discovered alive.

Appearing like a cross between a pine (which it isn’t, despite the name) and a palm tree, the Wollemi pine has bubbly bark that’s been described as looking like Cocoa Puffs cereal. Cones grow at the tips of branches.

Themed gardens

A sensory garden features plants that have interesting textures and smells. A southern hemisphere garden grows specimens from South America and Africa, and a Baja California garden ties in to the aquarium’s Baja Bay exhibit.

Jones knows which plants have strong, sweet or pungent odors in their foliage. Some, like rosemary, are widely known. Others, like honeybush (Melianthus major), are not. Jones crushes a leaf, and the smell of peanut butter fills the air.

Another, alpine bush mint (Prostanthera cuneata), has a bay leaf-like aroma. Still another, Baeckea gunniana, has a smell that is reminiscent of a household cleaner.

“A lot of times, those chemicals might be both attractive to the animals or they might be deterrents to animals eating on them,” he said.

On September’s leafy hors d’oeures tour, Jones will talk about lavender, Japanese forest grass, palm fronds and other common plants that serve as enrichment for the zoo’s animals. There’s no catnip for the tigers, Jones said, but they do seem to like Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa).

Hardy plants

None of the plants at the zoo need to be coddled, sheltered or moved indoors for the winter, Jones said.

“We look for plants that people are going to find successful here in the Pacific Northwest,” he said. “That way, they have some sort of idea of what plants they may be able to grow in their own gardens. Gardening should be fun.”

Making it fun means easy-to-grow plants, beautiful aesthetics and a connection to nature, he said.

Not all the plants in the zoo are rare, can be eaten by animals or have a connection to dinosaurs or human history. Some are just pretty.

In late August, a “Vanilla Strawberry” paniculata hydrangea was flowering like an exploding milkshake machine. Nearby, towering stems of orange flowering ginger (Hedychium coccineum) drew in camera-ready visitors.

Native plants

Not all of the plants are foreign visitors. Jones has incorporated native plants from Manzanitas to skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) in various locations. A southern U.S. garden features a variety of plants that might seem exotic to Pacific Northwest visitors. On top of that list are pitcher plants.

The tubular, veined, hooded pitcher plants resemble cobras waiting for their next meal. In a sense, they are. The plants use an intoxicating secretion to lure insects deep into their innards, where the bugs are trapped and digested in a lethal cocktail of acids and enzymes.

Other plants in the southern garden include magnolias, crepe myrtles and passion vine flowers — a flower so otherworldly that it stops some visitors in their tracks, Jones said.

Those who grew up with the plant find it no more interesting than a green lawn.

“With people in the Southeast — I have relatives down there — and they’re like, ‘You grow that? That turns into a mess,’” Jones said.

The interconnectivity of plants, both with each other and with people and animals, is what inspires Jones.

“The passion for me has been that this is an educational resource for the Pacific Northwest community,” he said.