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Plants: Safari Park Gardens

A Garden in the Valley

The scene greeting horticulturist Jim Gibbons as he drove up to the Nairobi Village construction area in early 1972 was daunting: not a plant in sight.

Nestled among the hills of the San Pasqual Valley, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is a unique refuge for wildlife and a safe harbor for species rooted in the Plant Kingdom. From towering acacias and conifers swaying at lofty heights, to the prickly beauty of denizens of the desert, to the astonishing hues of blossoms vying for the attention of pollinators, the Safari Park offers an array of plants for the curiosity and enjoyment of visitors. Whether you’re a horticulturist, a gardening buff, or a novice to things green and leafy, the Park displays plants that will intrigue and delight you. Botanical highlights await you in this extraordinary garden.

Answering the Challenge: Planting the Park

Just imagine: 1,800 acres (730 hectares), part chaparral, part bare dirt after construction, and it’s your job to turn it into an African and Asian paradise within a matter of months. This was the challenge facing the horticulture staff of the newly created Wild Animal Park (now called the Safari Park) in 1972. Daunting? Yes. Impossible? Not for this crew! The remarkable job of planting, landscaping, irrigating, and designing this parcel of land in the San Pasqual Valley was one they threw themselves into with determination.

All the planting had to be done from scratch that first year. The horticulture staff put some 500,000 trees, shrubs, flowering plants, and ground covers in the ground within only a few months.

“I started working at the Park in January 1972, as an assistant to San Diego Zoo horticulturist Ernest Chew,” remembers then-horticulturist Jim Gibbons. “The landscaping at the Park was just beginning. I knew the project was going to be large, but I was not prepared for what I saw on my first visit. We drove off the highway and into the construction area for Nairobi Village. Here, I saw the finishing stages of construction but very little else: no walks, plants, or any shade.

“My first thoughts were that a great amount of planting would have to be done by early May, when the Park was scheduled to open to the public. And, it would require hard work and sweat to dig holes big enough for all the trees and shrubs that were required. As fast as an area of construction was finished, in went the plants. Just before the sidewalks were poured, we realized that all the water lines to the planters were not hooked up, so work on the sidewalks was delayed while the water lines were frantically installed. We were still planting on opening day, May 10, and planting has continued ever since.”

During those first five months of 1972, the horticulture staff worked 10 hours a day, 6 days a week to get the plants into the ground, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 500,000 trees, shrubs, flowering plants, and ground covers were planted during that time. During the next several years, the plantings at the Park continued to grow and expand in all directions from the core of Nairobi Village. Each new exhibit area was landscaped as much as possible to match the natural habitat of the animal residents, and an overall landscape scheme tied the exhibits together throughout the Park.

The Park when it opened in May 1972.

By working with local garden clubs, botanical societies, and specialty nurseries, as well as receiving plant specimens from other countries through special permits, over the years the Safari Park has been able to maintain plants that represent geographical areas all over the world. The Park’s location, inland from the coast, and its varied elevations lend themselves to the establishment of a wide range of plants, creating a collection that few places in the world could duplicate.

The Safari Park is a truly unique place, with one of the finest collections of herbaceous splendor to be found anywhere, and many rare and endangered plants thrive in its safe surroundings in trust for the future. From here, the horticultural side of the Park can only continue to grow, as it branches out in new directions from its well-rooted foundation.