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Browse gardens abundant with edible flowers

Posted by Kirsten Pisto, Communications
Photos by Kirsten Pisto/WPZ.

The delicate petal of a sweet rose, the crisp stem on a freshly cut camellia and a mouth full of luscious nasturtiums leaves! The zoo’s browse gardens are bursting with color and we are celebrating this summer yield with a special delivery of mouthwatering garden plants to our resident herbivores. This is the fifth summer of cross-department collaboration between horticulture, animal management, ZooCorps and the commissary. The program has been a great success in ensuring the animals receive fresh summer treats as well as providing an excellent learning opportunity for our ZooCorps teens.

Cat nip is attractive to our big cats, just as it is to a house cat. The plant contains the feline attractant nepetalactone. This honey bee seems to enjoy it as well! 
Fennel, mint and sugar-snap peas grow together in the browse garden behind the Tropical Rain Forest unit.
Browse gardens are scattered throughout zoo grounds, tucked behind buildings and in-between exhibits, they offer an extra space for horticulture to grow fresh herbs, flowers and some fruits and vegetables. When summer does its part and the browse gardens begin to flourish, the teens in ZooCorps assist with tending the gardens and arranging delivery to the animal units. The teens are trained on how to identify the plants, where to cut and most importantly—who is eating what!

Zookeepers put in requests for their units and notes for the browse gatherers. ZooCorps teens get together twice a week to deliver the goods to a variety of animal units including tapirs, orangutans, raptors, flamingos, tree roos, elk, sloth bears, gorillas, waterfowl, bugs as well as residents of the conservation aviary, presentation animals, Family Farm, Day House, Australasia, Northern Trail, Savanna and Adaptations. The Animal Health team even requests special browse for their in-house patients. The demand for freshly picked browse is zoo wide.

Sweet William add a pop of color to the browse enrichment bouquets. The edible flowers have a clove-like scent.
The ZooCorps teens gather a variety of herbs, flowers and vegetables that are placed into brown paper sacks. Depending on the week the content varies, but all of the plants are edible and safe for the animals to enjoy.
Almost-ripe tomatoes and beans climb the bamboo poles in search of sunlight.

The browse garden program invites ZooCorps teens to work directly with animal care staff and get hands on experience with animal nutrition from the dirt to table paws. We spoke with these green thumbs and asked them to fill us in on the browse program:

Casey Iwamoto is a Senior at Chief Sealth High School and has been a ZooCorps member for 3 years, she is currently a ZooCorps intern.
Casey says she had never thought of herself as a gardener, but has learned to appreciate the role that plants play in both animal nutrition and enriching their exhibits. Her work with head starting the Oregon silverspot butterflies introduced her to a species whose very existence is tied to the plant it thrives on, the early blue violet. Casey’s favorite animals are the ocelot and the jaguar, so she puts a little extra cat nip in their browse bags. She hopes to go into veterinary medicine or environmental studies.

Sophie Yasuda is a Junior at Nathan Hale High School, she has been a ZooCorps member for 2 years.
Sophie Yasuda came to the zoo all the time when she was younger, so it was a natural fit to join ZooCorps. Her favorite aspect of the Browse Garden program is seeing the animals receive their browse. She says one thing that surprised her is that the animals are particularly interested in the colorful flowers and vibrant shoots—even animals love getting a bright bouquet! Sophie is interested in studying wildlife conservation or education. 

Xander Barbar is a recent graduate of Ingraham High School, has been a ZooCorps member for 4 years (currently finishing up 2nd year as a ZooCorps intern).
Xander Barbar remembers visiting the zoo at a very young age and says he was inspired to connect with animals and learn more about them. He says the most surprising aspect of the browse enrichment program has been that while he expected the browse to be used primarily as food—a lot of the animals are very playful and curious towards the new treats. They are smelling and touching the leaves, looking at the bright colors—just like humans would. Xander says that being proactive, flexible and asking lots of questions has served him well as a ZooCorps volunteer. He will continue to pursue his passion for animals at UCLA this fall and plans to major in environmental science or education policy.

Erica Bonilla is a Senior at Liberty High School, she has been a ZooCorps member for 3 years.
Erica Bonilla says she enjoys the therapeutic nature of collecting plants for the animals. She also really likes the idea that she is seeing the life cycle all the way through, “I get excited because I am literally redistributing energy. Each time I pick a flower it’s going to a living thing—towards new growth.” Her plan is to attend WSU’s Vet Study program and major in molecular, genetic or marine biology.

Thank you, ZooCorps for taking such excellent care of our animals and enriching their lives with fresh, fragrant browse! And special thanks to our Senior Gardener, Katrina Lindahl, Zookeeper Amy Davis and Warehouser, Tonya Duncan for working with ZooCorps teens and inspiring them to get excited about plants and animal nutrition!

Teens not interviewed: Amy Do is a Junior at Chief Sealth High School. Ashley Arthur is a Senior at Roosevelt High School. Kaitlin Peli '15 graduate from Henry M. Jackson High School (intern) and Gabriella Olague '15 graduate from Liberty High School (intern).