Native plants make a welcome comeback to Abu Dhabi’s streets
Hussam Ali first embarked on what he now describes as his “love affair” with the UAE’s native plants five years ago.
“To grow indigenous plants you need more concentration,” the manager of the Barari Nursery in Al Foah, Al Ain, explains. “You need more than concentration. You need love. If you don’t love these plants it is very difficult to learn how to grow them or even how to collect the seeds.”
Plants such as the leathery-leaved Rhazya stricta, the salt-tolerant Haloxylon salicornicum and the goat-resistant Tephrosia apollinea may now be his passion, but in the early days Ali was driven by something more than mere botanical curiosity. “There was a buzz in the market,” the nurseryman explains, “and various government agencies were saying that the future lay in native species.”
Keen to get a head start on what he saw as an emerging market, Ali started to scour the UAE’s mountains, dunes and wadis looking for specimens or seeds of the plants he believed would ultimately make him his fortune.
Unfortunately, Ali’s employer at the time disagreed with his horticultural hunch and so the plantsman from Peshawar was forced to conduct his research in his own time. “I had no proof to show to my management that they should invest in these plants so I started growing them myself. Each Friday and Saturday, I would go out and some friends might come with me for a gossip and a picnic,” he remembers. “We would spend the whole weekend in the mountains and the valleys collecting seeds and taking cuttings.”
One of the main challenges was that few of the plants had ever been grown commercially and, in many cases, the techniques required for their propagation were a mystery. Ali’s struggle with Zygophyllum mandavillei, a salt-tolerant perennial with succulent-like foliage, is a case in point.
“When I started looking for native plants, I used to see this plant growing wild everywhere, but I could never work out how to propagate it. I even uprooted some plants and took them back to the nursery but they all died,” the 37-year-old says. “One Friday, I stopped my car by the side of the road. It was very hot, but I sat looking at the plant and I swore to myself that I would not leave until I had worked out how to propagate it.”
Despite a decade’s experience of working in some of the UAE’s largest nurseries, Ali eventually had to give up and leave, which was wise because it was another three years before he was finally able to unearth the plant’s secret – that the seeds of Zygophyllum mandavillei are almost identical to its foliage.
Thanks to the emergence of government legislation that now champions the use of native and drought-tolerant plant species throughout Abu Dhabi’s parks and public landscapes, along with a change of employer, Ali was finally able to turn his passion into a thriving business after he moved to Al Barari two years ago. “It was a hobby before, but now it is a part of my profession. There is a demand for these plants now and we are ready for that.”
Ali now oversees a team of almost 100 staff whose sole responsibility is sourcing seeds and growing hundreds of thousands of native, naturalised and drought-tolerant plants, including the region’s largest native trees, the slow-growing ghaf (Prosopis cineraria) and the relatively fast-growing sidr (Ziziphus spina-christi).
At the moment, Ali’s team is growing more than 300,000 plants from 30 species across four nurseries, but his aim is to develop a palette of 100 species, including everything from trees and shrubs to grasses and low-growing ground cover.
“I always said the time would come and now it has,” the nursery manager explains, proudly. “Last month, we sold a million dirhams worth of indigenous plants for a single project in Dubai and the market is increasing. As well as the UAE, I am now sending plant lists and plants to Qatar, Saudi and Bahrain.”
The prime motivation behind this new-found appreciation of Arabian species is relatively straightforward, but it has motivations and implications that reach far beyond the world of gardening and horticulture.
According to the Federal Water and Electricity Authority (Fewa), a UAE resident uses 550 litres of water and 20 to 30 kilowatt-hours (kwh) of electricity a day, against an international average of 170 to 300 litres and 15kwh per day respectively, giving the UAE the dubious distinction of having one of the highest per capita rates of water and energy consumption in the world.
Irrigation accounts for a staggering 72 per cent of the total water consumed in Abu Dhabi and while nearly 70 per cent of the irrigation water used in municipal parks and streetscapes comes from recycled sources such as treated wastewater, the rest is made up of desalinated water and groundwater, a resource that is being consumed 15 times faster than it is being replenished.
Naturally adapted to growing in arid conditions, some native species require, on average, 75 per cent less water when grown in nursery conditions than the tropical plants that have come to define the UAE’s public landscapes over the last 40 years. Even without the efficiencies made possible by the use of more sophisticated irrigation systems, the implications of a switch to the use of more drought-tolerant, native and regionally adapted plant species is significant.
For Yasmeen Al Rashedi, the acting Estidama programme manager of Abu Dhabi’s Urban Planning Council (UPC), however, that transformation has implications that extend beyond water and energy consumption.
“I think we need a cultural shift in terms of what people see as beautiful in the landscape,” the 30-year-old explains. “Anybody who was born after the ‘greening’ of Abu Dhabi has been brought up to think that is the level of beauty that we should aspire to in the landscape, but there needs to be a shift so that people can start to appreciate the natural landscape that is available in the UAE.
“We have to be very careful and very sensitive about how we do it,” Al Rashedi admits, “but I think going back to our native species is extremely important because it’s about bringing our natural heritage back into our daily landscapes.”
This change in attitude can be seen most clearly in the very different landscapes that now line Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Street, formerly known as Salam Street. On one side is the Eastern Mangroves Park. A large expanse of heavily irrigated and immaculately tended lawn, the park is studded with water features and surrounded by date palms that can consume up to four times the amount of irrigation water required by more drought-tolerant tree species.
On the other side, the situation could not be more different. Sand, not grass, separates the plants and rather than a desert-denying emerald green landscape, the palette is dominated by the heat-resistant, glaucous blue-greens, greys and silvers developed by naturally drought-resistant desert species such as raa (Aerva javanica), markh (Leptadenia pyrotechnica) and qasad (Lycium shawii), many of which were grown by Ali’s team at the Barari Nursery.
In many ways, the landscapes here are incomparable. The Eastern Mangroves Park continues to be popular with families who use it for picnics in the evenings and at weekends, whereas the arid landscape opposite has been designed as a drought-tolerant treatment for a space enjoyed only by passing motorists and the pedestrians who now flock to the new exercise route that follows the motorway here.
What they do represent, however, is two very different visions of what landscape can achieve in Abu Dhabi. Rather than being mutually exclusive, however, these apparently opposing visions should be understood as complementary, according to the UPC’s associate planner Talal Al Ansari.
“The emirate was founded on a vision of the oasis in the desert and Abu Dhabi was seen as a garden,” he explains, “but with time we have started to realise the implications of that. We spend a lot of money at the moment keeping the older, lush, greener public realm maintained in this country and we really need to start re-looking at that. If we are creating lush green spaces, they need to support activity and be in areas where people can congregate and make use of them and not just as something that is looked out onto.”
For the landscape architect Anna Cooper, a senior associate with the local landscape design consultancy Cracknell, the key to the success of Abu Dhabi’s newer, water-conserving landscapes will lie in their ability to resolve the apparently competing demands of ecology and sustainability with commerce and leisure.
“If you’re not careful and the use of native plants isn’t integrated carefully within a design, there’s the danger that people will look at certain schemes and just see them as weeds growing by the side of the road,” the designer explains. “I think there’s another level of education still to come about the plant material and what you can and can’t do with it at this stage.”
For Cooper, one of the biggest challenges in designing Abu Dhabi’s new landscapes comes from managing the expectations of commercial clients who demand sustainability but still expect to see the kind of lush landscapes that continue to define luxury developments in the UAE. “Clients may say they want a sustainable landscape but they still say: ‘It will still look green, won’t it?’ We have to say: ‘Yes, but it will look green in a slightly different way.’
“What we’ve chosen to do is to try and develop a balance between a native landscape and something that looks like it’s been ‘designed’.”
One of the other problems facing landscape designers, contractors and even environmentally sensitive gardeners is the limited availability of native species. This is both a boon and a headache for Ali and his team.
“At the moment, we are in a transitional period between the use of tropical and native plants,” he explains. “But one of the main problems we are facing at the moment is specifications because some clients insist on certain species and certain sizes. That is not an option at the moment because the plants are not there but within two years, by the grace of God, we will have a range of trees and plants that will make it easy for landscapers to include these plants in their designs.”
Despite this struggle, Ali is enjoying the support of his employer and his early adopter’s advantage in the UAE’s native-plant market. “We have a kind of monopoly on these plants at the moment, but that will not last for long. After two or three years, people will start to abandon tropical imports and will concentrate on indigenous plants. That’s when prices will start to come down and there will be more choice.”
For Al Rashedi, however, the most important tipping point in Abu Dhabi’s new approach to its landscape will finally come when the personal becomes the environmental and changes in public landscapes start to influence private lives and tastes.
“Emiratis have large plots, they have large garden areas and one thing we would like to see is how they use their spaces more sustainably in their homes.”