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The Green Zoo: Paignton Zoo’s botanical achievements

Paignton Zoo is not only home to hundreds of different species of animals, it’s also a botanical garden filled with beautiful plants from around the world. In fact, from the very beginning, our wooded zoo site has been carefully nurtured as a green oasis where visitors can surround themselves with nature. As we continue to explore our history as part of our centenary celebrations, join us in looking back the botanical accomplishments of our dedicated team throughout the years.

Whitley’s green fingers

Herbert Whitley was as keen on horticulture as he was on animals, collecting and propagating several greenhouses full of rare and exotic plants at his home – Primley House. Thanks to his obsession with the colour blue, he cultivated many flowers of this hue, and even created several new varieties. Some of these can still be found today, such as a variety of common mallow (malva sylvestris) which he aptly named ‘Primley Blue‘.

Malva sylvestris or common mallow 'Primley Blue' was created by Herbert Whitley

Did you know that blue flowers are a favourite of butterflies and bees?

Blue flowers are relatively rare in nature, making them more noticeable to pollinators amidst a sea of other colours!

Whitley also made botanical contributions to the local community. The zig-zag paths of Goodrington Cliff Gardens on the South Devon coast are framed by an array of striking plants, many of which were originally donated by Herbert Whitley back in the 1930s.

Green innovation

In 2009, Paignton Zoo undertook a ground-breaking botanical project: VertiCrop – Europe’s first vertical growing facility. VertiCrop’s purpose was to grow food for our animals using sustainable technology and hydroponics.

Although we no longer use vertical planting technology, we continue to produce food for our browsing animals on-site. By carefully managing our plants and trees, our gardens team are able to provide a wide variety of food to our animals throughout the year.

VertiCrop at Paignton Zoo used a combination of hydroponics and vertical farming to optimise plant growth

Did you know that hydroponics involves growing plants without soil?

Plants are cultivated in a water-based nutrient-rich solution. Surprisingly, growing plants this way uses up to 98% less water than if they were grown in soil!

Towering trees

In 2004, one of Paignton Zoo’s bay trees broke the record for the tallest of its kind in the UK, reaching a staggering 14 metres tall. The Laurus nobilis ‘Aurea’ is a type of bay tree recognised for its striking golden leaves, and this particular specimen can still be found on the picnic lawn towards the top of the zoo.

Across the road, a 100ft tall and 230-year-old Lucombe oak is much-loved fixture of our nature reserve, Primley Park. The semi-evergreen hybrid of a turkey oak and a cork oak was first cultivated in the 1760s by Exeter horticulturalist William Lucombe. The tree in Primley was one of the first of these oaks to be planted in the UK.

The Lucombe oak tree in Primley Park, Paignton is 230 years old

Did you know that some species of oak can live for more than 1000 years?

The Pechanga Great Oak Tree in California is estimated to be 2000 years old!

Feats of conservation

Paignton Zoo has successfully propagated multiple titan arum – a tropical plant nicknamed the ‘corpse flower’ due to its potent stench of rotting flesh! Thankfully, this rare phenomenon only occurs when the plant is in bloom, and only a handful of visitors have had the fortune (or misfortune) of experiencing it.

This rare plant only grows in the wild in the rainforests of Sumatra, Indonesia and boasts the world’s largest unbranched flowering structure – which can reach 3m tall! Paignton Zoo, along with other botanical gardens, are vital in conserving this precious species, which is endangered due to deforestation and land degradation.

The titan arum is also known as the corpse flower due to its potent stench.

Did you know that the foul stench of the titan arum is produced to attract flesh-loving pollinators?

Earwigs, flies and beetles are particularly enticed by this foul feast!

Wild havens

Paignton Zoo has always been full of blooming borders and mown lawns for picnics on sunny days, as well as areas which, at first glance, may look a bit unkempt. We have always managed the site for the benefit of local wildlife and these areas provide essential homes for a wide range of native species.

Over the years, our team’s unwavering efforts have resulted in numerous botanical accomplishments that serve as a testament to our ongoing mission to help halt species decline by supporting biodiversity and creating a thriving ecosystem within the zoo grounds.

By maintaining a balance between cultivated and more natural spaces, Paignton Zoo continues to provide a haven for wildlife, while also offering visitors a unique and enriching experience surrounded by the wonders of nature.

Interested in the unique role of a zoo-based horticulturist? Watch this video to get the low down on a day in the life of one of Paignton Zoo’s gardeners:

This blog is part of a series looking back at our history for our centenary year. To learn more about our plans for our upcoming 100th birthday, click here.