All over grounds but particularly in the Asian Tropical Forest you may have been noticing a fast-growing tree with gray bark, no leaves but lots of tubular lavender flowers. This is the princess tree, Paulownia tomentosa. This fast growing native of China looks much like Catalpa (which we will talk about in July and August) throughout the summer with large heart-shaped leaves up to a foot across. 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 re-grow from its 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 still a few magnolias blooming all through Asian Tropical Forest and Tropical Rain Forest zones. There are many species on grounds including Magnolia grandiflora, M. soulangiana, and M. denudada. Throughout the tropical zones is a groundcover with purplish blue flowers. This is vinca, the small ones are Vinca minor and the large ones are Vinca major. Pretty simple. Another groundcover has heart-shaped leaves with yellow flowers up on a stalk. This is bishop’s hat, Epimedium pinnatum. This Asian native is in the same family as our Oregon grape. A third lovely groundcover is about 30 feet down the south Elephant Forest path on the left. This is false lily-of-the-valley, Maianthemum dilatatum. Look for a mass of heart-shaped leaves with a small spike of white flowers coming out of the center. This is a Pacific Northwest native. Also check out the north entrance to the Elephant Forest on the left side. There is a species of chestnut called the red buckeye (Aesculus pavia). It is a low spreading tree native to the southeastern United States and has more distinct red tubular flowers than the more common horse and red chestnuts. Across from the siamang windows is a vine clinging to the artificial rockwork. This is the climbing hydrangea,Hydrangia anomala and is native to Japan and Taiwan. Along the orangutan boardwalk is the Chinese wisteria, Wisteria sinensis. Look for the clusters of violet-blue flowers. There is also a lot of this overhanging the zoo’s South Gate. Also along the orangutan boardwalk is the flowering ash, Fraxinus ornus. This southern European native has opposite branching (like all true ashes) and fluffy clusters of small, white, fragrant flowers at the ends of the branches.
Nearby in front of the Raptor Center is the red chestnut (Aesculus x carnea). This is hybrid cross as is indicated by the “x”. Turn towards the Adaptations building and continue towards Australasia. Lots of rhododendrons are blooming this month. Check the one overhanging the large artificial rock at the snow leopard exhibit. This is a species, Rhododendron augustinii, native to southern China. It is always worth your while to walk the unpaved paths through the Australasian plantings. The tree ferns are sending up new fronds, the eucalyptuses have new growth and flower buds swelling. The spider flowers, Grevillea, are also blooming and have been for months. There is the Grevillea “Canberra gem” with small needle-like leaves and red flowers hidden in the foliage. There is also the more upright Grevillea victoriae with larger leaves and larger orange blooms hanging at eye level. Both are native to Australia. In the dry, open section of this planting an interesting plant is blooming. Look for a gnarly, almost leafless shrub with small, star-shaped yellow flowers. This is Corokia cotoneaster. It is native to the drier parts of New Zealand and is in the dogwood family. Continuing along the path around the emu/wallaroo exhibit is a gravely area where Libertia 'Amazing Grace' is blooming. This member of the iris family is very distinctive and looks like white blooms floating in the air. While you pass by the emu yard and the west side of the North Meadow you can see the horse chestnuts (Aesculus hippocastanum) blooming. At the northeast end of the path between emu and this landscape is the Asian native Japanese mock orange, Pittosporum tobira. Look for a large, broadleaf evergreen shrub with pale yellow flowers that smell like orange blossoms.
The viburnums are still blooming. Look for leatherleaf viburnum (Viburnum rhytidophyllum) along the Rain Forest Food Pavilion, Viburnum davidii — a low one with puckered leaves through out the zoo, and Viburnum cinnamomifolium, which looks like a larger form ofdavidii and is found in the Trail of Vines exhibit. A particularly fragrant one is Viburnum carlesii, a large shrub with white, globe-like cluster of flowers that is smells great. Find them near the back gate of the Butterflies & Blooms conservation garden. It is the doublefile viburnum, Viburnum plicatum tomentosum. It is a wide shrub/tree with wide, flat clusters of brilliant white flowers.
Northern Trail has some color this month. Look for the yellow-flowering cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa) in and around the entry. The leaves — as the name implies — has five segments. Also start looking for the prickly rose (Rosa acicularis) and, in front of the snowy owls, the Labrador tea (Ledum groenlandicum).
There are a number of trees that bloom early and are now finished but we are seeing the, literally, fruits of their labor. Seeds are abundant on trees this time of year, especially the maples and the elm trees. There is our native bigleaf (Acer macrophyllum)-large ones north of the ATF 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.
If you walk through the North Meadow between the ZooTunes stage and Butterflies & Blooms or on the west side of the giraffe barn it will be raining elm seeds on certain days. There are several species of elm on grounds but the really big ones are the English elm, Ulmus procera.
Throughout the Tropical Rain Forest zone there is the hard-to-miss Mexican orange, Choisya ternate. This Mexican native is a 3-foot evergreen shrub covered with fragrant white blooms. A vine with 4-inch pink blooms and is climbing around the Tropical Rain Forest zone and Our Backyard exhibit isClematis montana rubens, a common horticultural variety. While you are in Our Backyard notice the native dogwood tree, Cornus nuttallii. Around the Rain Forest Food Pavilion is a low shrub with prickly leaves that is blooming now called prickly heath (Pernettya mucronata). It has small white flowers but in the fall and winter it will be covered with purple berries (no this is not the beauty berry everyone asks about in winter). It is native from Mexico to the Antarctic, New Zealand, and Tasmania — a very interesting distribution.
In our Temperate Forest zone, things are actually starting to wind down. This is a reaction of our native flora to our particular climate. With our mild winters and early spring the most vigorous plant growth is in March through May. When we get into June the weather gets considerably drier and when July arrives with our summer drought (except for the 4th!) our natives are pretty much finished. There are several that bloom a bit later, however. Right now we have a few things going. Right at the entrance in front of the two mountain hemlocks are some blue flowers on foot-high stems and grass-like leaves at the base. This is the camas (Camassia quamash), also called Indian hyacinth. This is a plant of southern Puget Sound in our glacial outwash remnant prairies. It is a bulb that was regularly harvested by Native Americans and eaten. They would burn the prairies to keep woody plants away and thus perpetuating the camas. Also at the entrance is the bunchberry, Cornus anadensis. Look for a ground cover with white flowers with four petals.
The twinberry (Lonicera involucrate) has a pair of yellow flowers high on the bush that hummingbirds seem to enjoy. Later on there are, as the name implies, a pair of black berries. The plants and the hummingbirds can be seen in the Temperate Forest. As you enter the Discovery Loop look to your right for a large, very thorny plant with blooms just forming. This is devil’s club, Oplopanaz horridus. This is a plant no one forgets after they have encountered it hiking in our lowland forests. Another native that will start this month is the thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus). The leaves look maple-like but feel more like gentle sandpaper. Soon there will be quarter-size white blooms followed by a berry that looks, well, like a thimble (no need for imagination on how it received its common name). Good stands of these are by the talking benches and as you leave the Temperate Forest just before you turn into the Conservation Aviary. Don’t miss the delightful bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) as you walk into this zone. Look down to your right and enjoy this groundcover with large white flowers. And although they are not showy take a look at the blooms of the salal (Gaultheria shallon). They are very noticeable just past the entry to the contact area. The flowers look like a tiny inverted urn which tells you they are members of the heath family (Ericaceae). Other familiar members of this family are heathers, huckleberries, rhododendrons, azalea, and our native madrona tree (Arbutus menziesii).
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 (look at the native vine maples blooming). Enjoy spring!