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Browsing the Bamboo

When you think ‘edible gardening,’ you usually don’t imagine growing banana trees for elephants. But Bryon Jones does. The lead horticulturalist at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium has created an entire garden devoted to plants that zoo animals can munch, nibble or chew. It’s usually hidden from public view. But on Sunday, Sept. 3’s free garden tour, visitors can browse the browse garden to find bamboo, banana, kiwi and more – and even pick some themselves for the animals.

“I love that we can grow some of the foods that our animals need right here at the zoo,” explained Jones, of why he started the browse garden behind the Asian Forest Sanctuary buildings a few years ago. “And visitors love hearing about it. It’s a popular tour.”

Here are just some of the plants you’ll find on the tour – and who likes to eat them. The tour will end with an opportunity for visitors to pick some banana leaves to take to an animal area.

Banana (Musa basjoo)

Suki the elephant eats a banana leafOkay, put your hands/paws/trunks up if you love banana leaves! That would be many of the animals in the Asian Forest Sanctuary – which makes sense, as the plant is native to India, Southeast Asia and tropical Australia. Jones grows hardy banana, native to Japan, which dies back but lives through cold Northwest winters. But it’s still a highly popular food with many zoo animals, including elephants, anoa, tapir, porcupine, siamang, gibbon, sloth and coendou.

And our vulture and cat species love to shred it down, too.


Prickly pear (Opuntia ellisiana)

Who loves a snack of prickly pear? Our radiated tortoise and green iguana!


Bamboo (Bambusoideae)

 tapir in bambooBamboo is another Asian plant, but the Asian Forest Sanctuary animals receive it more as enrichment than food. And while elephants usually love chowing down on bamboo, our elderly elephants Hanako and Suki don’t have much tooth surface left, and the stalks are just too tough for them.

But our Australian budgies just love it for tearing and shredding, not to mention perching on.


Kiwi fruit (Actinidia argute)

kiwi close upOur kiwi vines just keep growing and growing – last year Jones and his team harvested around 4,800 fruit, which were shared between Point Defiance Zoo, sister zoo Northwest Trek Wildlife Park and Woodland Park Zoo.

Which animals eat kiwi? Lemurs, tortoises, lizards, beavers, bats, sloth, millipedes and parrots, just to name a few.

It gives them huge amounts of vitamin C and other nutrients.


Dogwood (Cornaceae)

Most of us appreciate dogwood for its pretty pink or white flowers. But our beavers and coendou (a prehensile-tailed porcupine), who live at the Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater, like to munch on it, too.

Other plants grown in the browse garden include willow and mulberry, which our elephants like to eat, plus squash, corn and even a fig tree.

“Having fruit and browse grown on grounds saves us money, reduces our shipping carbon footprint and maximizes freshness,” says head veterinarian Dr. Karen Wolf. “It’s great.”

JOIN THE TOUR: The Leafy and Fruity garden tour leaves at 10am Sunday Sept. 3 from the main plaza. It’s free with admission or membership.