Lions and dolphins and snakes, OH MY!

Horticulture alumnus Joe Parr makes massive topiaries at Sea World and Busch Gardens in Florida.

When squealing children burst into Busch Gardens in Tampa, Florida, they are greeted by more than just the usual park attendants — a giant, 18-foot-tall topiary in the form of an octopus also awaits. Children stand in awe as parents snap photos of the massive structure made of sphagnum moss, a steel skeleton, and a lot of creativity.

All of this makes Joe Parr smile. It means he’s done his job well.

Parr, a 1983 horticulture graduate, is director of horticulture for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment’s Busch Gardens Tampa and Adventure Island, where he creates enormous topiaries in the shape of lions, snakes, butterflies, dolphins, and even Oscar the Grouch.

“A lot of people will go to an area and totally miss the plants,” Parr said. “What I was trying to do is make plants that you can’t ignore. Topiaries take plants off the ground and put them right in your face.”

Growing up, Parr would admire the amazing gardens around him, but never imagined he could make a living gardening.

At Virginia Tech he took design classes that provided formal training as well as basic horticulture education, giving him a solid foundation for a career that has taken him to some of the most fun places in the world.

Prior to his time at Busch Gardens, Parr worked for the Walt Disney Company as a horticultural specialist at its nursery and tree farm and as a seminar instructor for Walt Disney Productions.

People often ask how Parr comes up with ideas for his topiary masterpieces. He said it starts with a little inspiration that might come from a book or from features in the park.

The lion jumping out at park guests was inspired from a vintage Ringling Bros. poster, while the giant octopus is based on “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

After the initial inspiration, Parr starts a sketch that will be turned into a 3-D computer model. From there, artisans and fabricators then join a puzzle of steel rods into an interconnected full-size grid that forms the bones of the topiary. Larger topiaries are built from molded sections that are fastened to a structural steel frame and covered with moss.

Topiary horticulturalists then insert individual plant plugs of various species into the sphagnum moss – 1 square inch at a time – until the entire surface is covered.

One of Parr’s most elaborate creations was an 18-foot-tall woman rising from a pool; he named it Spirit of Spring. He used more than 160,000 plants that were chosen for their adaptability to shearing, sun, shade, and wet or dry conditions.

This year Parr’s designs have been nominated for a prestigious National Design Award, given by the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, to recognize excellence in American design.

But Parr isn’t in it for the awards.

“My greatest compliment is to see the children stop in their tracks, mouths wide open, to admire the grand topiary,” he said. “That is success to me, and it is very gratifying.”