Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden earns top accreditation ranking for arboretums

The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden recently earned the highest level of accreditation for its work as an arboretum, and is the only arboretum within a zoo to achieve this recognition.

Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens entrance with flowers in the foreground.
The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden achieved the highest level of accreditation as an arboretum. (Photo by Michelle Peters)

The ranking came from the ArbNet Arboretum Accreditation Program. It’s the only official initiative of its kind in the world.

Arboreta can achieve four levels of accreditation. Standards measured include planning, governance, public access, programming and tree science, planting and conservation.

The sponsor and coordinator of the program is the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill.

There are 2,340 arboreta listed globally, and 628 of those have reached some level of ArbNet accreditation. Only 41 of those are Level IV, the highest ranking.

Steve Foltz, director of horticulture

Steve Foltz, the zoo’s director of horticulture, called achieving Level IV accreditation status as “truly something to celebrate.” Cincinnati has the only arboretum within a zoo to earn it.

“Most visitors appreciate the beauty of the plants and trees around the zoo, but few realize the incredible amount of work and dedication required to maintain, develop, and conserve these treasures,” Foltz said.

As part of the accreditation process, the Cincinnati Zoo now has a spot on the Morton Register of Arboreta database. It contains information about organizations that display trees, shrubs and other woody plants for the purposes of science, conservation or public benefit.

Foltz credits the zoo’s endangered plant experts for helping reach the new level. The Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife team works to propagate and preserve plant and tree species, especially oaks.

“They’ve taken the important accreditation qualification to advance the planting, study and conservation of trees to the next level by cryopreserving seeds and other plant tissue in our Frozen Garden,” Foltz said of their work.

Other factors considered in the approval process included the work of the zoo’s horticulture team. They run the Plant for Pollinators program, which has grown to include more than 3,000 private gardens. They’ve also helped plant and maintain several community gardens and led educational outreach efforts across the city.

One example is the creation of a 2-acre mini-botanical garden on the campus of Rockdale Academy. The K-6 elementary school is two blocks from the zoo’s Avondale campus.

Elements of the zoo’s botanical garden efforts are visible throughout its 80-acre campus. Much of its collection – from shade trees to groundcover plants – are species used as part of a trial. The goal is to see how they’ll adapt to gardens and landscapes in urban areas in the Midwest, per the zoo.

Other prominent displays include the annual tulip showcase each spring. It also has one of the largest trials for annuals in the United States. This year’s display features 700 varieties of annuals, amounting to more than 60,000 plants in total.