Last week, I took my boys to the San Diego Zoo and we headed toward a less crowded area where the giant Galapagos tortoises reside. As often happens, on our walk I pointed out the plants as much as the animals. “Cass, do you see this avocado tree over here?”

Then I noticed fruit. Looked mighty Fuerte-like to me. And the leaves, they looked exactly like Fuerte leaves: large, flat, deep green. “Guys, I think it’s a Fuerte!”

I’d been noticing this hidden little avocado tree for years, but never noticed fruit on it. Maybe this was it’s first year bearing. I think of the tree as “hidden” only because many plants at the Zoo have labels with their common names and botanical names and places of origin — which I’ve always appreciated — but this tree calls no such attention to itself. There are many more like it, if you occasionally turn your gaze from the animals to the surrounding forests.

Not like any Zoo visitor doesn’t notice the plants. The beauty of the Zoo’s botanical collection is obvious the minute you go from the parking lot to the Zoo’s entrance. I’ve heard that, in fact, the value of the plants on the San Diego Zoo’s 100 acres is higher than the value of its animals although I can’t now seem to find where I heard that in order to confirm it. But the fact that there are fruit trees nestled among the colorful coral trees, soaring palms, and hibiscus flowers that are as big as your head is not always obvious.

Here is a guava we saw near the Fuerte avocado:

Here is a tiny cherimoya that was tucked into surrounding ornamental plants:

In just that same remote corner of the Zoo we saw loquats and blackberries too. In other areas there are more guavas, passion fruit vines, dragon fruit, pineapple guavas, figs, and coffee bushes.

And there are lots and lots of bananas. According to the Zoo’s website, they grow 24 types of bananas. “The leaves and stalks are harvested and given to our primates and elephants as browse. The fruit sometimes supplements the commercial bananas purchased to feed a variety of animals in the collection.” These banana plantings are sometimes conspicuous, such as in the grove at the Zoo’s northeast corner, but there are smaller plantings sprinkled in almost every other part of the property.

Here are some bananas by the snakes:

I’ve watched some fruit trees disappear, unfortunately. There used to be a small avocado tree down by the hippos, and then one day it was gone. And I continue to notice plants for the first time, even after visiting the Zoo so often for many years now. From 2009 to 2013, my wife and I lived two blocks away from the Zoo; while falling asleep at night, we often heard the Transvaal lion roar; while gardening in the morning, the monkeys hollered so loudly that I expected them to peek out from behind a tree in our yard. We often took after-dinner strolls through the Zoo on summer nights, sometimes staying well after dark. (It was spooky walking by the tigers, within a dense canopy of trees, in darkness — even as you knew they were behind a secure barrier.)

I’ve seen new plantings go in that are clearly labelled, which is fun. They had a bunch of vegetables and herbs one year by the Zoo’s eastern fence near the parking lot although they’re gone now. And they put in a little orchard with peaches and apricots and blueberries down by the lagoons where the herons hang out at the Zoo’s low-elevation southwest corner. There are tables with umbrellas, which make it a nice place to eat lunch.

I bet there are a hundred fruit trees I’ve yet to notice at the Zoo, too. Have you ever noticed this mango tree? I won’t tell you which part of the Zoo it’s in, just in case you haven’t. Treasure hunt.


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