It's a Lion! It's a Tiger! It's a Plant! Oh my!
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It's a Lion! It's a Tiger! It's a Plant! Oh my!

Written by Justine Rushing Newman
Photos by Rachel Wilson            

Today, we’re talking topiaries!  I’d like to describe how we make your experience even more enjoyable at the Memphis Zoo through the wild world of plants!   We will also give you instructions on how to do the same at home!      

Sedums in moss

As you enter the plaza of the Memphis Zoo, you will see a line of animals decorated in English Ivy (Hedera helix) ready to greet you with open leaves from behind the columns of the West Building on your right and the Elephant Trunk gift shop on your left   Be sure not to miss the menagerie that includes a swan, elephant, deer, and giraffe.  Our topiaries are not English Ivy alone-beneath the elegant syncretism of animal and plant you’ll find attractive additions in their pots including selections like Secretia (Tradescantia pallida), Firecracker plant (Russelia equisetiformis), Coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides), and Lantana (Lantana Camara).

Leonard the Lion    

English Ivy isn’t the only way to make a topiary!  At the Memphis Zoo, we are using all sorts of succulents!  These types of plants are all the rage now, having found their way from the dessert to beautiful wedding bouquets and aesthetic arrangements sold at your local garden store.  We’ve picked up on the trend and as you walk towards the cathouse café, you will find Leonard the Lion, Layla the rabbit, Melvin the giraffe, and Pokey the horse in front of Stingray Bay covered in succulents and sedums!  


Our horticultural palette is wide but includes: Stonecrop (Sedum rupestre 'Angelina'), Panda plant (Kalanchoe tomentosa), Bean plant (Sedum rubrotinctum), Campfire plant (Crassula capitella), and Mother Millions (Bryophyllum delagoense).  We also can’t forget our succulent sensations at the front of the lodge at Teton Trek.  They are quite beautiful in their cone shape.  Here's how you can do it:

  1. Find a frame: cone shaped, circular, whimsical, or animal.  Do one search on the internet and you will find a plethora of topiary frames for sale. 
  2. Purchase sphagnum moss:  We use product from Mosser Lee at the Zoo but you can find it in smaller amounts at Lowe’s.  Make sure it’s not peat moss but sphagnum moss. 
  3. Soak your moss in water.  
  4. Wring out your moss so it’s not dripping but still damp and stuff your topiary until it’s completely full and somewhat overflowing with moss.  
  5. Take fishing line and wrap it around and around and around the frame to keep the moss contained within the frame.  Your project should now look more like the topiary frame shape.  This can also be a good time to lightly water your topiary with liquid fertilizer as the moss provides a great home for the plants to root in but no nutrients.  
  6. Poke holes in the moss to make room for your plants  
  7. Take your sedums, succulents, ivy, or other plants and plug them into the holes (check out the bottom of the University of Illinois’ extension website on topiaries for a list of other plants that do well:  Get creative and choose plants that imitate the feature you’re going for: we use Firecracker plant for Pokey’s tail at the Zoo!  
  8. You may need to secure your plants with floral pins.  Some people even use craft glue on the underside of the bottom leaves to keep their plants in place. 
  9. Place your project in a sunny location and watch it grow! 

Melvin the Giraffe

To maintain your project, keep it watered but not drenched.  The plants will root inside, but because of the lack of nutrients (mentioned earlier) supplemental ones are needed, so it’s a good idea to feed your topiary with a liquid fertilizer every now and then!  Be sure to bring your plants in during the winter, like we do at the Zoo.  We take our animals to the greenhouse and work on them there.  I hope you enjoyed this entry on topiaries and I hope you will make your own and come visit ours at the Memphis Zoo!  

Elephant topiary 

Posted by Zoo Info at 3:10 PM