A few years ago, when I was a Head Gardener for the National Trust, if you’d told me that I’d soon be working in a zoo I’d have laughed as I got back up off the lush, striped and neatly-edged lawn.

But then, that’s the great thing about horticulture as a profession – it’s not just the plants that grow, it’s your career and it’s yourself. I first wanted to be a gardener because I craved a career outdoors and - I’ll admit it - I enjoyed getting muddy. You spend most of your adult life working, who the hell would want to spend that much time inside? 

Gardening seemed the obvious answer. Over time an appreciation of plants became apparent; it started with the ones for which I could easily learn the Latin names, and thereby escape the thunderous stare of my Head Gardener as I explained that yet another plant ID test had proved ‘challenging’. Then again, perhaps it was simply a pretty flower in my favourite colour. 

But of course this doesn’t hold interest for too long and what was it Monty said in the film Withnail and I? ‘Flowers are essentially tarts. Prostitutes for the bees.’ So I began to admire plants for other attributes, for their form and habit, deeply furrowed or smooth bark, seed and fruits, sticky buds - but this too was just scratching the surface.

Next came the appreciation of seasonality, longevity of interest and an understanding of cultivation requirements – I guarantee you that once you find a plant that thrives in a particularly tricky spot in your garden you will have a long-standing affinity with that plant.

But you can’t stop there; what wildlife value do they have, how will they fit into my planting scheme, do they fit into the correct timeline for an accurate representation of an historical garden? The list is endless.

I don’t think a gardener ever stops learning, a day spent outdoors will always teach us something. But there does come a point when you look at the garden you work in and kind of think, yeah, I’ve done what I wanted here. Time for a new challenge.  

And I guess that’s what led me to my current role as Curator of Plants and Gardens at Paignton Zoo Environmental Park. Yes, it’s my job to maintain high presentation standards for our 450,000 annual visitors, but that is just one element. Plants mean so much more to us than appearance.

Plants are essential to any successful zoological exhibit. Not just in terms of appearance but also in animal husbandry. Plants and animals evolved together, obviously, and so we need to think about how our plant species and some thoughtful planning can provide shelter, perching, enrichment and food for our animal species. Can we grow plants endemic to the animal’s natural habitat?  It’s not always possible, though the mild climate of the English Riviera gives us an advantage. 

Of course, it’s not just about the relationship between our plants and animals, Paignton Zoo is also a botanical garden and so we need to think about the wider issues of plant conservation. How can we link plant conservation to the in-situ animal conservation projects that we already run? How do I ensure our ex-situ plant collection has a genuine positive link to plant conservation? 

One in five plant species now faces extinction and ex-situ collections have an important role in preventing further plant extinctions. 

How we go about this is daunting, and often fills me with anxiety – come to think of it, a similar anxiety that I experienced when I had to explain to my HG why I’d missed the college lecture on business planning. I guess that’s ultimately why I ended up working in a zoo – I wanted to do more for plants than just make them look pretty.

I can’t tell you exactly what I’ll be doing in another decade, but I guarantee you it will involve the wonderful world of plants. Now, it’s time to see if that bloody heavy crocodile has squashed our Strongylodon again…. 

Giles Palmer
Curator of Plants and Gardens
Paignton Zoo Environmental Park

Quotes Brilliant, loved every minute of it especially the free activities throughout the day. Quotes