04 April 2017

There’s a delicate balancing job to ensure that conditions are as good as possible for plants, animals and visitors – all of which have different needs in terms of temperature, humidity, ventilation, etc. For example, the watering system has to be adapted according to the time of year as plant growth is a lot slower in winter and so, needs a lot less water. This reflects the conditions the plants would have in the wild, where the amount of rainfall fluctuates.

Even though some of the plant species were very large when they were originally planted in Monsoon Forest – the durian plants were nine metres high – the landscape will take some time to mature. It will look completely difference in five or ten years’ time.

However, creating a tropical-looking environment in the Cheshire climate provides the team with plenty of other challenges. Most of the plants found in forests across South East Asia aren’t able to grow in our climate, so we have to use hardy plants to create a tropical feel instead.

Phil Esseen, curator of horticulture and botany at Chester Zoo, tells us more below:

Across the Islands site, we need to provide a blooming green backdrop all year round to keep that authentic South East Asian feel, and where possible, include plants which are not found commonly in people’s gardens, so they’re experiencing something new. It’s quite challenging to create something which looks tropical but survives the UK winter, as well as provide interaction with the animals.

Plants are so important to create an enriched habitat for the animals and also encourage natural behaviour and each animal requires something completely different. For example, orangutans’ needs trees to climb and swing on but birds require trees that are perfect for building nests and perch on.

In the wild rainforests are very complex environments, with hundreds of different plant species; so the planting must try and provide some of these opportunities for behavioural enrichment.

The birds in Monsoon Forest spend most of their time in the trees, perching, nesting and feeding. Some of the trees are bearing fruit, so keepers have been using some of this to add to the bird’s prepared food, for example there are bananas and star fruit growing here. And the birds have been using the fibrous material from the trunks of the palm trees as material for their nests.

Where possible, we’ve tried to give some individual character to each of the different islands. For example, there are lots of tree ferns on Papua, bamboo in Sumatra, and more exotic flowering plants in Bali. It’s still not necessarily creating an accurate representation of a typical habitat of that island (which is impossible in the UK climate!), but it makes each area distinct our visitors.

It will be exciting to manage the planting in Islands over the next few years. It will constantly be growing and developing, some of the planting is very dense and will need thinning out in a few years’ time. We will be continually adding more species and trying to enhance the landscape for the benefit of animals and visitors. 

We have just planted some Nepenthes (also known as pitcher plants) above the mixed reptile habitat. 

The zoo has the National Plant Collection for Nepenthes and many of the 140 or so species are threatened in the wild. We have also introduced some ‘ant plants’ (Myrmecophytes). These fascinating plants have a close relationship with ants: the plants provide the ants with food and shelter, and the ants help with pollination, seed dispersal and defence. The ant plants are tucked away in a crevice next to the upper viewing window for the macaques… see if you can spot them when you next visit!

Although the aim is to keep Monsoon Forest and the rest of Islands as natural-looking as possible, we have been introducing some discrete labels to help visitors identify certain plants.

See what other amazing wildlife can be found on Islands at Chester Zoo by exploring our interactive Islands map here.