x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Plant hunter scours world for seeds of success

The horticulturist at Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort is searching the globe as part of an ambitious project to create a world-leading collection of plants from the planet's dry places

Early one morning, Jamie Hilyard wandered into the legendary Chatuchak Market in Bangkok with a short list of plants he had been seeking around the world. He walked through the alleys crowded with foliage and trees of all shapes and sizes before coming across a woman with a table covered with bonsai.

Despite their size, he recognised them as baobabs - the iconic African tree that seems to have been cast from the sky into the ground with its roots sticking into the air. It was one plant that he was having trouble finding in global horticultural markets. And where there are small baobabs, there may be larger ones, he mused. Mr Hilyard, 47, quietly signalled to a team of Thai men who usually shadowed him during his strolls through the market and negotiated prices when he found something he liked.

They discovered that the woman had a veritable trove of baobabs at her village home some hours drive into the countryside. Within a few days, Mr Hilyard had bought the lot - more than 100 young baobabs "growing amidst the ramshackle rubble of her house". That was just one adventure in the life of the "plant hunter", as he is called by his colleagues at Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort (AAWPR). Mr Hilyard's official title is landscape manager, but his real job is to oversee a vast procurement operation to obtain tens of thousands of plants needed to populate the park's recreations of deserts of the world.

AAWPR's goal is to establish "one of the most comprehensive and dramatic collections of arid plants in the world", according to a presentation. The project, the first phase of which is to open in November next year, is said to have a budget of more than a US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn), but officials would not comment on the figure. Michael Maunder, the director of collections, conservation, horticulture and education at AAWPR, says the park will be distinctive because it is simultaneously a zoo, a botanical garden and a museum.

Visitors will be able to have a safari experience, arriving in the different environs in four-wheel drives and see the plants and animals of each desert environment. "It will be one of the largest new biodiversity institutions anywhere in the world," says Mr Maunder, who was previously the executive director of the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Miami, Florida. "The amazing thing about a project like this is that it has impacts on smaller economies around the world," he says.

Not only is the project buying tens of millions of dirhams worth of plants from up to 15 countries, but Al Ain Wildlife Park is building its own nurseries and investing in local horticultural talent. To get rare East African aloes, AAWPR has built its own facility to grow them from scratch. Mr Maunder says a similar project may start up in Madagascar. So far, AAWPR has obtained just 20 per cent of the plant material needed, but these palm trees, cacti and drought-resistant shrubs have been sourced from as far as Mexico, Arizona in the US, Spain, South Africa and, of course, Thailand. The globalisation of the plant and landscaping industry - worth tens of billions of dollars - has led inevitably to the situation where plants that are indigenous to the US can easily be obtained in Spain and African trees in Thailand. All of the plants must be purchased in an ethical way, meaning no shrub or tree can be ripped from its natural habitat. Most of the plants come from nurseries.

This extends even to seeds. When the team bought seeds for a Madina palm - a rare tree - they were careful to ensure that the percentage of seeds they took from one season did not put the propagation of the species at risk. "We have chosen not to buy from several nurseries because they could not assure us of the provenance of those plants," Mr Maunder says. While Mr Hilyard's work is often limited to computer research, it is not hard to tell that he is truly in his element when among plants.

Wearing a floppy hat and sunglasses, he recently inspected plants that had just arrived at a nursery in Fujairah. "This one's a real beauty," he says, touching the smooth grey trunk of a young baobab. A native of Australia, Mr Hilyard worked as a horticulturist in the Gulf for four years before landing in Al Ain about a year ago. His purchase of baobabs in Thailand was just the beginning of a six-month journey for the trees to the UAE.

Moving a tree is risky. A wrong step can lead to hundreds of thousands of dirhams of plant material dying. With the right tactics and patience, AAWPR loses only a tiny fraction of the plants it imports. After a tree has been removed from the ground, it has to be reconditioned and its roots treated with plant hormones in preparation for the sea journey. To reduce the risk of bringing in unwanted life forms or plant diseases, UAE law requires that the roots be completely cleansed of soil. The tree is not shipped until its root bowl is strong enough for the trip.

Trees often travel in open-top containers so they remain exposed to sunlight and rain. Containers with plant material are always placed in front of the ship's smokestack so they do not suffocate from the exhaust fumes. More sensitive plants travel in refrigerated containers. "To some extent, we're learning as we go with shipping these plants," Mr Hilyard says. "Sometimes we set the temperature too high or too low."

Transportation and reconditioning of plants doubles the cost. The longer-term goal of the project is to apply what is learnt about desert plants to the landscaping of the Emirates. "We are looking at enlarging the plant palette of the country," Mr Hilyard says, explaining it is possible that one day drivers will gaze upon thick African baobab trees growing in road medians. The plants that flourish in the park could find their way across the country.

For instance, the African sausage tree, technically known as kigelia, is flourishing in the desert environment. On the other hand, some cacti are getting burned by the intensity of the sunlight in the UAE. "People here have tended not to take any risks with plants so far," he says. "We don't know what the conclusions will be yet of all our tests, but it could be very interesting." bhope@thenational.ae