All through Asian Tropical Forest and Tropical Rain Forest zones you will see the magnolias blooming this month into next. There are many species on grounds including Magnomia grandiflora, M. soulangiana, and M. denudada. Also throughout both these areas you cannot miss the osmanthus (Osmaria x burkwoodii), 3-6 foot shrub with small, evergreen leaves and many small, white, tubular, fragrant flowers. Another plentiful shrub is the English laurel, which most of you are probably familiar with. Right now it is blooming with sweet-smelling spikes of white flowers. Along the railing of the orangutan boardwalk are a number of vines. One blooming right now is five-leaf akebia (Akebia quinata). Dark burgundy, almost chocolate flowers will form large purple pods later in the season. Before this month is over the empress trees (Paulownia tomentosa) will be showing off their purple blooms. They are in bud right now but warm weather will bring out the blooms. This tree has a very rich history in its native China. In ancient Chinese legend, the empress tree was considered an omen of good fortune because of its association with the Phoenix, a mythical bird that regenerated itself in fire (this interesting association might come from the tree's trait of being able to regrow from it roots after being burned or cut down). Apparently the Phoenix would only alight in the choicest empress tree in the land, and only when a benevolent ruler was in power. For this reason, empress trees were a favorite tree to plant, just in case a Phoenix happened to come to town. In the Chinese tradition, parents planted a Paulownia tomentosa when a daughter was born. As the girl reached “marrying age,” the mature tree was cut down to make all sorts of handsome household items for her dowry.
There are a lot of willow species on grounds and they are starting to bloom. Most have the typical “pussy willow” look to the flowers. Several in Northern Trail have pretty yellow blooms and in front of the red crowned crane exhibit is a variety with black blooms. These are prime browse plants for the zoo animals.
Also in Northern Trail the blueberries are in flower. These relatives of the heathers, salal, madrona, and rhododendrons have small white flowers that keep the bees busy.
Around the Tropical Rain Forest a few things are in bloom. Look for the sweet smellingOsmanthus burkwoodii. This member of the olive family is a small evergreen shrub with clusters of white tubular flowers. Just starting to bloom is the Mexican orange (Choisya turnata). This also smells sweet and can be found near the main restroom. Look for its palmatly (like the palm of your hand) compound leaves that, if crushed, also give off a fragrance.
The laurustinus (Viburnum tinus) is a common plant on zoo grounds. This broad-leafed evergreen has clusters of white flowers that started blooming in November and will continue into spring. There are a number planted around the north restroom. Several other viburnums are also blooming. Look for leatherleaf viburnum (Viburnum rhytidophyllum) along the Rain Forest Food Pavilion pathway, Viburnum davidii — a low one with puckered leaves through out the zoo, and Viburnum cinnamomifolium, which looks like a larger form of davidii and is found in the Trail of Vines exhibit zone.
In the Asian Tropical Forest zone look for the bishop’s hat (Epimidium pinnatum), a low groundcover with heart-shaped leaves and spikes of mostly yellow flowers.
There are a number of trees starting to bloom that often go unnoticed. Just look up and you will see the different maples in flower including, the native bigleaf (Acer macrophyllum) — large ones north of the Asian Tropical Forest boardwalk, and vine maple (Acer circinatum) — throughout the Temperate Forest zone. There are also several non-native species such as sugar maple (Acer sacarhynum) in the North Meadow and Norway maple (Acer platinoides) along 50th Street. A lovely native tree/shrub blooming is the service berry (Amalanchier alnifolia) with white flowers. This can be seen in Northern Trail next to the wolf den sculpture as well as along the east side of the Education building. A pleasant story associated with this genus refers to the eastern species. Back in days of the settlement of the Appalachian region there were not enough judges and preachers for all the small towns and in winter the roads would be closed. So all the weddings and other ceremonies or “services” had to wait until spring. They knew the roads would be clear when the serviceberry was blooming and hence the name.
You can’t miss the cherries. The most spectacular one is the Mt. Fuji cherry near the old bear grotto restroom as well as just west of the west parking lot. There are also the weeping cherries at the zoo’s Administrative offices near the zoo’s North Entrance and the Family Farm as well as a number of different cherries and flowering plums on grounds. The early spring this year has made them almost bloomed out already.
The rhododendrons are starting and will continue through spring. They are scattered throughout. Look for the species specimens around the snow leopard exhibit.
Still blooming is the evergreen clematis, Clematis armandii. Look for large white flowers with a sweet odor on this vine. They cover the trellis at the near the lemur viewpoint and can also be seen in the Trail of Vines zone and at the zoo’s South Entrance. You will also notice a small groundcover with blue flowers around Tropical Rain Forest. This is vinca (Vinca major and Vinca minor).
Two natives blooming in the Temperate Forest zone are the Oregon grapes. The longleaf Oregon grape,Mahonia nervosa is a low, shade-loving shrub is common in our forests and can be seen in the zoo’s Family Farm and the Temperate Forest zone. Watch for the bright yellow flower clusters starting to show this month. The tall Oregon grape, Mahonia aquifolium, is, as the name suggests, much taller and prefers more light. The Discovery Loop and tower in the Temperate Forest are good places to see it.
Other natives in the same area of the zoo are red-flowering currant, Ribes sanguineum. The rose-colored, drooping flower clusters are notorious for attracting hummingbirds. Check out the red alders, Alnus rubra, in the Family Farm to see the small, cone-like structures at the ends of the branches. These are actually small flowers, but since they are wind pollinated they are not showy. Also in the Temperate Forest the red elderberries (Sambucus racemosa) is starting to bloom. Look for tall plants with clusters of white flowers way up at the tips. These will turn into clusters of red berries in summer. The huckleberries and blueberries are blooming this month as well. In the Family Farm look for the deciduous red huckleberry (Vacciniun parvifolium) growing out of old stumps and on the ground is the evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum).
As I said, this is by no means the total list but is a list of plants that will probably catch your eye as well as a few that won’t unless you look for them. Enjoy spring!