An interview with Phil Esseen


An abridged version of the podcast.

Could you tell us about your role as Curator of Botany and Horticulture at Chester Zoo?

Phil Esseen

It’s quite a quite a unique role. I’m responsible for the plant collections at Chester Zoo, working alongside the animal curators. The ethos of Chester Zoo is conservation, so the emphasis is on rare and threatened plant. We’ve got five National Plant Collections: about 700 species of Plerothallidina orchids from South America; 120-130 species of Nepenthes pitcher plants; and three collections of different cacti taxa, all from Latin America. My role involves managing the conservation collection as well as the landscape and gardens within the zoo. We’ve several ornamental and themed gardens, as well as the themed landscapes to create the impression that you’re in a rain forest or in an arid desert – all within the  temperate Cheshire climate! We also manage some of the animal habitats and the nature reserve just outside the zoo. All this work is carried out by three teams of 20 experienced and dedicated horticultural staff, some of whom have been here for a couple of weeks and others for more than 40 years!

My job also involves looking at zoo development as part of a big, ambitious development plan for the zoo. COVID-19 has had an impact on this development but we’re still very much looking into future projects. My input involves determining how to convey different landscapes to fit the themed zoning of the zoo. Conservation is another big part, working with both native species and overseas – both in situ conservation and in the UK. We’ve got a 125 acre site and many visitors so day-to-day management can present challenges, and there are always a number of smaller projects taking place.

You’ve mentioned the plant conservation work and the conservation work more widely of Chester Zoo – could you tell us a little more?

We’ve just published a 10 year Conservation Master Plan which includes plant conservation as well as animals. There are a number of targets in the plan I will be working towards including increasing the number of threatened species we keep at the zoo. We work across six biogeographical areas around the world, all representing diversity hotspots. Within each of these areas, we have a field programme coordinator who oversee the conservation work we are engaged with in that area. For example, in Southeast Asia, we’re working on Nepenthes conservation and in Madagascar and Rodrigues, we’re looking at how we can support forest regeneration projects, focusing on the cultivation of some of the rarer species. In Latin America, we’re also working on forest regeneration using native species as well as looking to work with Copiapoa, one of the cacti National Plant Collections we hold, and a potential conservation action planning workshop in Chile, working with various stakeholders involved in that particular taxum. We have some great projects and the conservation team are keen to ensure that plants play a role alongside animals.

Is the intention to link your National Plant Collections with your in situ conservation work?

Yes, very much so. It is the same with the animal collections too. While not exclusive, we do try to focus on the conservation of collections we keep at the zoo. There are lots of other projects though that don’t correspond to the zoo collections: our work in the UK, for example, focuses on native species that aren’t part of the zoo collection. I’ve been lucky enough to visit a couple of our overseas projects and see the positive impacts we have on, for example, forest regeneration in Madagascar.

What do you enjoy most about your role?  

It is so varied. For instance, this morning I have been drying Amorphophallus titanum leaves to send to Chicago as part of a study on the origin and provenance of all the cultivated Amorphophallus titanum in plant collections. I’ve also harvested some cinnamon leaves because we’re looking at making a Chester Zoo gin for Christmas and spoken with colleagues about projects in Madagascar. This week we’ve a meeting about staff wellbeing and how gardening can have an impact on staff mental health, and a meeting with colleagues at Ness Gardens about the sharing of plant material. Lots going on and I think that’s what keeps you on your toes!

How have you got to this role of curator at Chester Zoo?

It’s a convoluted route! As a kid, I was really interested in plants and animals: my parents let me have free rein in the garden which was very brave of them! I loved animals as well and was always trying to drag my parents to Chester Zoo. At university. I chose botany, mainly because in those days I was equally interested in animals, but I didn’t really like the dissection or live animal experiments. Then I decided to train as a landscape architect. So I did a second degree at Manchester University and then practised as a landscape architect for a number of years, particularly working with local authorities. I moved into nature conservation and then as a parks manager for a local authority. Quite a mixed bag really. So while I haven’t come down an horticultural route, I have brought lots of different skills and interests together in my current job.

Would you have done anything differently if you could go back?

I like to view the zoo as a botanic garden, which is really what it is. I would have liked to have a bit more experience of working as a horticulturist in the botanic garden sector but then equally, when I see the Chester Zoo science team at work, I’m drawn to the academic side! Having said all this, I’m very happy with what I’ve done and where I’ve ended up.

How does zoo horticulture differ from horticulture in a botanic or heritage garden, for example?  

We’re trying to theme the areas of the zoo: a forest zone which is subdivided into Southest Asia and Africa, a grassland zone like an African savannah and a UK heritage zone. Some of these areas were built 30-40, sometimes as long as 90, years ago so we’re trying to adapt them to these new thematic areas. We’ve also some new areas like a Southest Asian Islands area which was a greenfield site before development into the zoo. The difficultly with planting in such themes is the maturity of the planting – a forest needs lots of mature trees.

From the animal perspective, enrichment is really important as well as creating a habitat for the animals that reflects their origin and needs. It is important to choose the right plant species for, as an example, foraging, nesting, social seclusion etc. Planting can help the animals to feel more comfortable: chimpanzees can be quite aggressive but you can use planting and planting design to split up their enclosure to reduce aggression; the free flight birds area in the Monsoon Forest Dome needs planting that provides perches for the birds as well as ground cover for shelter – but not too much to make it difficult to navigate around.

We try to include different species, including fruiting species, for different animal interactions but some animal-plant interactions can be problematic for the plants as some animals can be quite destructive. Seeing a tree bend under the weight of a family of bears makes you realise the tree might not last many years longer! Herbivores also provide their own challenges. Some plants are included as sacrificial plantings. You do have to consider toxicity issues as well and what is planted with what animal. Laurel is toxic but is also very distasteful so we use it in quite a few enclosures and the animals just avoid it because it doesn’t taste nice. For some animal species, we might have a very fixed palette of things that you know are going to survive so Berberis does really well as does dog rose, Pyracantha and other plants that are a little bit unpleasant for animals to interact with and can act as barriers, hiding areas etc. You also want plants that animals interact with so it is a balancing act.

If anybody wants to get into zoo horticulture, what would you suggest they do?

Horticulture is important: getting a good horticultural qualification and experience is important and is the route most of our team here have pursued. A knowledge of plants, an understanding of what working with plants involves and a passion for plants are a good grounding – then you can learn the application to a zoo environment on the job. Most of us working in zoos are conservation-orientated as well so an interest in nature conservation and/or plant conservation is quite critical.

What does the future hold for you?

We have some exciting projects that have been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, including the big project at Chester Zoo to create a grasslands themed zone. It will look like an African savannah with a big mixed species paddock for giraffe, antelope, ostrich and other animals, and then various other satellite enclosures for warthogs, vultures, meerkats, etc. While this is three to four years away, we need to be sourcing plants soon, particularly as we will need some trees above giraffe height. Then we have some interesting conservation work coming up, working with partners in Madagascar, Java, and Chile on forest regeneration projects.

There are three questions that I usually ask people about: your favourite plant, the garden tool you can’t be without, and your favourite plant or horticultural book.

I wouldn’t say it’s a favourite plant but it’s a very useful one in the zoo world: Trachycarpus. It looks exotic but is very robust. We use it widely in tropical-looking plantings. I’m very keen on our National Plant Collections, particularly Nepenthes (tropical pitcher plants) as they are an amazing taxum and are a really good talking point with visitors. For the tool, I would say secateurs –a bit tongue in cheek, as the team need them to control the lush growth that results from planting an instant landscape! For a book, it has to be Excursion Flora of the British Isles by Clapham, Tutin and Warburg which was an eye-opener for me on my botany degree. It is out-of-print now but provided a portable way to identify species growing in the UK using botanical keys. Another book which I read recently and enjoyed was Wilding by Isabella Tree, about a rewilding project in Sussex.

Finally, how do you engage people in conversations about plants in a zoo?

A big difference between the zoo and a botanic garden is that people have chosen to come and see the plants in a botanic garden while in a zoo, people have come to see the animals. Plant blindness is a very overused phrase but it is a big challenge. The zoo’s ethos is very positive, they do want to engage visitors in plant conservation as well as animal conservation and the different departments are all keen to publicise the plant side. It can be a struggle for attention but we are lucky with our National Plant Collections as they are very engaging and we can find interesting stories to tell about the green stuff!

More information….

Watch out for a webinar in 2022 focusing on horticulture in zoos!