Early Autumn at the NC Zoo

Sweet Gum fall color at the NC Zoo

I have been an avid supporter of  the North Carolina Zoo since it opened a few decades ago. It is located in the middle of the state, about an hour’s drive due west from my house. Although the leaves are barely turning where I live, in Asheboro, the home of the NC Zoo, autumn was definitely beginning to show itself.

Asheboro, NC is located on textbook-gorgeous southeastern Piedmont terrain, and the horticultural staff at the NC Zoo has done a spectacular job of enhancing the native vegetation on the site with additional plantings that enrich the exhibits and beautify the grounds. I admit it freely: I go to the NC Zoo to see the plants more than the animals — although the animals are quite impressive too.

The Sweet Gums (Liquidambar styraciflua) were really starting to redden nicely. Wonder Spouse took the photo above; he also extracted the fall banner image at the top of this blog from this photo. I never grow weary of that rich maroon they often display this time of year.

Acorns from numerous Chestnut Oaks (Quercus montana) littered the Piedmont hills that shelter the Zoo’s exhibits. And I spotted a native Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) with branches weighed down by numerous golden-orange fruits. Wonder Spouse was kind enough to take a picture of them for me:

Persimmon fruits almost ripe for the picking

Don’t try eating these tempting-looking fruits until after the first hard frost, unless you like the inside of your mouth to feel permanently puckered.

One of the coolest things the horticultural staff has accomplished lately is the planting of the constructed wetland they built adjacent to the parking lot for the North America section of the Zoo. Much science and engineering went into building this wetland, which is designed to serve as a filter system for rainwater runoff from the parking lot while simultaneously educating the public about the importance and beauty of our native wetlands.

I was blown away by the obvious vigor of this man-made wetland. The native plants that are helping to filter runoff look very happy, as do the native animals that have found their way to this spot:

Turtles bask in early October sunshine

The horticultural staff has planted many of my favorite moisture-loving native plants along the edges of the wetland, including Scarlet Rosemallow (Hibiscus coccineus), whose large red flowers always look to me like botanical satellite dishes. See what I mean here:

Scarlet Rosemallow

The Pickerel Weed in the wetland is spectacular. I wrote about my sad little specimen here. But this is what it looks like when it’s really happy:

Happy Pickerel Weed in the Zoo’s wetland

A member of the Zoo’s horticultural staff overheard me admiring these gorgeous Pickerel Weeds, and he confided that the staff had been forced to water the plants most of this past summer. Asheboro experienced the same severe drought that my yard endured. The constructed wetland dried up, and supplemental water was added to keep the new plantings alive until the rains returned. Water levels are still low, but they are high enough now to keep the plantings happy.

I’ll leave you with three final images of this gorgeous wetland. All the photo’s in today’s blog entry were taken by ace photographer Wonder Spouse. I think these three would make mind-blowingly difficult jigsaw puzzles.

Here’s a shot that features some healthy native cattails in the foreground:

Cattails, Pickerel Weeds, and friends

This shot reminds me of a painting by Monet. Water lilies are backed by Pickerel Weeds:

Monet would have loved this photo

And finally, here’s a wider shot that shows you more of the water lilies, Pickerel Weeds, sedges, and other native plants:

Man-made tranquility

The Zoo’s constructed wetland features several wooden walkways that protrude into the wetland, so that visitors can get closer to these wonderful plants. Besides the turtles, we also saw a few ducks, and numerous frogs. In summer, I imagine colorful dragonflies also animated this special spot.

I have promised myself that I will return to this wetland during the other three seasons. I imagine that winter snows, new spring growth, and summer’s full green vigor will provide additonal perspectives on this landscape. Autumn has already muted the colors and textures of this wetland a bit. I like the look of the still-blooming flowers among the browning foliage.

The signals are clear: seize the waning sunlight while you can, before winter’s silent embrace makes us long for spring’s color and song.

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