(Originally written on October 13, 2017, I’ve updated a few parts of this post here in 2021.)

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. “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 its 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.

Coffee bush at San Diego Zoo.

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.

For example, here are some bananas by the snakes:

I continue to notice fruit trees for the first time, even after visiting the Zoo so often for many years. From 2009 to 2013, my wife and I lived just up the street from the Zoo — so close that we often heard the Transvaal lion roaring while we fell asleep at night. And while gardening in the morning, I could hear the monkeys hollering 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.)

Recently, I noticed for the first time a few pomegranate trees by the birds of prey, and I also noticed a litchi tree near the baboons.

In addition to the Fuerte avocado tree I mentioned earlier, I’ve been watching an avocado seedling grow up near the hippos. It was clearly not intentionally planted there, but I’m glad they haven’t removed it since it’s now over ten feet tall and likely to flower soon (as of September 2021).

Avocado tree near hippos at San Diego Zoo.

Unfortunately, I’ve also seen other fruit trees intentionally planted but grow poorly. A few years back 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. But it was too shady there and the plants struggled.

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.

Mango tree at San Diego Zoo.

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