Ernest Chew: Shaping the Plant Collections
Ernie Chew was a force for horticultural order at the San Diego Zoo, taking the Zoo’s already impressive botanical collection and shaping it into a plan that we still recognize today. When he took on the role of horticulturist in 1970, he surveyed the Zoo’s canyons and mesas and saw microclimates, areas that had more shade or sun, were drier or more humid, among other features, and were therefore more suitable for particular groups of plants. He then organized these groups according to the geography of the animal exhibits—what part of the world the species were from—and came up with a botanical plan that represented habitats while also making the best use of the Zoo’s features.
Another of Ernie’s claims to fame was establishing the Zoo’s browse program. He felt strongly that the plants should not only be beautiful and educational but also provide food for the animals and structures for exhibits whenever possible. Eucalyptus for koalas (as he’s seen offering here), acacia for giraffes, ficus for hoofed animals, and eugenia for primates were some examples of what could do double duty when grown at the Zoo. Ernie wrote many plant articles for ZOONOOZ magazine and was a member of numerous plant societies, and he worked for the Zoo for 12 years before branching out to go into business for himself.