Ask A Master Gardener – A Zoo Garden

Toad Lily-Tricyrtis formosana

There are many types of gardens: pollinator, shade, sun, butterfly, rock, woodland, herb, vegetable, water, cutting, rain, container, permaculture, and more. Each serves a purpose and has a beauty uniquely their own.  But, does your garden chatter, rattle, slither, baa, roar, or moo?  Then it must be a zoo garden.  Although the plants do not make such noise, their names do imply a wealth of activity.

As with any garden, a zoo garden will need to be narrowed down to a category or two. There are both perennial and annual choices, shade and sun choices, as well as choices that simply are not suitable for our growing zone.  However, anything mentioned in this article will grow easily on our zone 5a.

You could choose a reptile/amphibian theme and plant Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium) or White snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum).  Both of these plants were mistakenly thought to be a cure for snakebite.  Turtlehead (Chelone) has blossoms that resemble turtle’s heads.  Lizard tail (Saururus cernuu) has a plume that is similar to its namesake.  Toad lily’s (Tricyrtis formosana) bespeckled blooms bring to mind the skin of a toad.

Big game animals are also represented in the plant world. Leopard plant (Ligularia dentata) will make an impressive addition to a rain garden.  Monkey flower (Mimulus ringens) will have observers chattering over the beautiful purple blooms.  Tiger’s jaw (Chasmatophyllum masculinum) is a succulent that will need to be brought in for the winter.  However, there will be no question about the origin of the name with leaves that look like ferocious tiger teeth.  Bear’s breeches (Acanthus) are only hardy to zone 6. However, planted in a sheltered location and given some extra care, they have been known to survive in zone 5. Like bears, this plant can be a bit aggressive and spread by creeping rootstocks.  This is less of a problem in northernly climates and can be controlled by planting them in bottomless containers.

Still in the big game category, but grasses or ferns instead of perennials is Buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloidees). It was grazed by the prairie buffalo. Zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis) has horizontal gold stripes reminiscent of the zebra’s stripes. Ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) are just about as tall as an ostrich (up to 6 feet) with arching fronds that look like tail feathers.

Another category, barnyard animals make their contribution to the zoo garden. Pig squeak (Bergenia) is a plant that will make some noise; rub the leaves between your fingers and you will get the pig to squeak.  Lamb’s Ears (Stachys) are just as soft and fuzzy as their animal counterpart. Cowslip (Primula veris) is thought to have come by its name from an Old English reference meaning cow dung.  Cowslip thrives in pastures and anyone who has walked through one will easily understand the connection.

Lastly there are the cute forest animals that lend their names to plants. Harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) grows in meadows along with their furry namesakes.  Skunk cabbage (Lysichiton camtschatcensis) gives off a musty odor when crushed, but not nearly as powerful as the black and white forest friend. Porcupine grass (Miscanthus sinensis) has horizontal banded foliage resembling quills.

While a zoo garden may really not chatter, rattle, slither, baa, roar, or moo it will be a way for you and your family to have fun.

Carol Shirk

Certified Master Gardener


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