Before coming to Chester Zoo, Jo previously worked in an office environment for 15 years. Following a visit to the Eden Project she was inspired to learn more about plant conservation and education and signed up to a horticultural course where she discovered how interested she was with the relationship between animals and plants and how she could improve this. Jo applied for an internship at Chester Zoo and has been here ever since.
Could you tell us more about the cacti collection we have at the zoo and why do we keep it at the zoo?
“They are amazing! They come in all shapes and sizes, some are very small then some are as tall as a tree. Some are spiky and some are hairy. There is such a variation. Cacti are specialists in water conservation so can survive in the harshest of environments. Unfortunately, the same way animals are going extinct these wonderful plants are also under threat. With some species facing a high chance they will become extinct within our lifetime.
“Cacti are unfortunately under extreme threats of extinction. This means there is a high chance that some of these species will become extinct within our lifetime. We are leaders in animal and plant conservation so its highly important we have a stable backup population within the zoo. We use the plants to assist in educating the public on the threats that face both the plants and the animals here at the zoo.
“These plants can be found in our greenhouses as they require very specific temperatures and care so need to be kept in one place. This allows myself and the team to attend to all their specific needs.
How do you look after and maintain so many individual plants – could you tell us a bit more about the day to day processes you have to do?
“My day is always very busy and diverse. I am responsible for looking after 6 different genus of cacti that all originate from different areas of the Americas. All plants have different requirements. Of a morning I might check the water levels of plants and mist them if necessary. This is just like how some plants will obtain water in the wild. Each cactus will then require specific care, for example altering the temperature, watering, feeding. It’s no mean feat but I love what I do.
In your opinion what is the hardest part of your job?
“This question is hard because I love my job so much. I would have to say my main challenge is trying to alter people’s perceptions of plants, and how they are imperative to the survival of EVERYTHING. Many people see plants and just think ‘oh it’s just a plant’. However, we all forget that without plants humans and animals would not be able to survive.
What’s your favourite thing about your job?
“I have so many favourite aspects of my job. I get to come to work every day and work with my passion and hobby. I have the chance to grow all the amazing species here in the greenhouses and around the zoo. I get the opportunity to grow these plants which then help to enrich and assist the animals that live here at the zoo. I love it when I see the animals appreciating the plants, for example in the butterfly house when they use the flowers I plant.
“I often have to pinch myself still. This place is truly amazing and really isn’t your typical place of work. I get the chance to directly enrich the lives of the animals that call the zoo home. Along with get hands on with conserving some of the world’s rarest plants.
Did you have an interest in plants from a young age?
“I didn’t really have much of an interest in plants growing up. I would have the odd competition with my neighbour to see who could grow the biggest plant. However, my interaction with plants as a child was limited. During my 20s when I got my first property I really enjoyed utilising the outside space; having my own garden and my own piece of land helped to develop my interest in plants. I really enjoyed the challenge of keeping a thriving environment.
Where’s your favourite place in the zoo and why?
“My favourite space in the zoo depends on the seasons. During the winter months I love the Glorious Grasses area. I enjoy seeing the grass swaying in the wind. During the spring, I enjoy the Sunken Garden – with such lovely colours at this time of the year.
What is your favourite plant species that can be found around the zoo? And tell us a cool fact about it.
“Well obviously, I love the cactus we have here at Chester Zoo. My favourite species of cacti is the golden barrel. Unfortunately, this specific species is classed as endangered on the IUCN register. There are only two populations of this cacti left in the wild, which is mainly down to a large damn being built in 1990 which almost wiped out the entire population.
Tell us something our visitors would be surprised to learn about cacti.
“There are 100s of different types of cacti – there is a huge variety; we just have a small sample here at the zoo. There are 1000s of cacti which are all endemic to the Americas, mainly Mexico.
What advice do you have for someone looking to become a horticulturist / botanist?
It is very important to become qualified. I also found reading and researching different plants and husbandry techniques will help increase your knowledge. It is important you are not afraid to try something new, and investigate different and unusual plants. If you can it is always great to get some experience with a variety of plants and volunteer your time and skills. This will show your dedication and enhance your skills.