Outdoors The dryness and the heat of the UAE can coax out some spectacular flowers.
Sizzling hibiscus is queen of the desert, putting others to shade
Flowering plants either take after the Colonel's Lady or Judy O'Grady and their selection decides on the whole tone of the garden. There are those who prefer small, but perfectly formed class acts and those who go for big bloomers. In northern and central Europe, you can freely choose whether your garden is going to be the horticultural equivalent of classical or rock, Jaeger or Zandra Rhodes. However, in the fierce light and temperature of the Horn of Africa, shy violets really do not stand a chance. That petite rockery plants are called Alpines points to their need for hard, cold winters and mild summers to do their best. In desert lands it takes big beautiful babes to stand up to the sweltering heat and make themselves noticed. Judy O'Gradys don't need pith helmets for protection from the sun.
A bonus of moving to a hot climate is the ease of being able to grow glamorous flowers that struggle to survive indoors elsewhere however much you cosset them. One of the most stunning of these is the hibiscus, which sulks in dull greenhouses in many parts of the world, but opens with an operatic swirl of drama here. There are varieties in almost every shade of every colour, from the scarlet decorating the hair of flamenco dancers in Spain to pewter silver for the captain's table. Guaranteed to make visitors reach for their cameras, H moscheutos has the largest of all perennial garden flowers at up to 30cm across and H mutabilis, also known as the Confederate Rose in the US, actually changes colour from white to pale pink to full red as it matures. These shrubs love sunny, well-drained soil and regular watering.
One of my own favourites is the shrub Angel's Trumpet (Brugmansia). You can stick it in an unprepossessing corner, ignore it and it will grow as though on hormones, producing a tower of scented tubular bells, each up to 60cm long, for four to five months a year. The two best known varieties are B knightii and B sanguinea, with colours ranging from white-tinged with blue to yellows, pinks, peach and true red. Because it requires virtually no attention, does not take offence if you cut it back and is nothing less than glorious in full flower, it fulfils the ideal for any lazy gardener.
Unfortunately, most of us are accustomed to receiving gifts of the cousins, Hippeastrum and Amaryllis, standing rigidly resentful at being grown singly in pots and then disappearing after one season, because no one knows how to keep them going. In southern countries, merely popping two or three bulbs in around the garden brings much happier results. Each bulb will grow into a gratifying clump of showy blooms, which eventually has to be thinned out with the surplus distributed among friends. There are double, spidery, or open trumpet flowered varieties. Most have splashy centres contrasting in colour to the petals, which come in white, yellows, pinks, reds to dark plum. Feed and water during the growing season then, once the leaves die back, leave dry until restarting growth the following year.
If there is one plant that no Emirates garden should be without it is the Bird of Paradise flower (Strelitzia), a structural exotic adored by designers. With its green, yellow or purple bracts and vivid blue petals, it resembles a colourful crested crane bird and so is called the Crane Flower in its native South Africa. S alba is a less well known variety, with a dark blue spathe and pure white sepals and petals. A large pot crammed with this plant in full flower from September to May on the balcony or terrace is a joyful reminder that we really have left grey skies, rain and cold far behind.
Finally, it is a member of the lily family that rises above all competition and inspires pure awe. Cardiocrinum (Giant Himalayan Lily) grows to three and a half metres from a huge bulb. It takes two or three years to establish up to 50 trumpet flowers per stem. These come in cream, or greenish white with red, maroon or purple streaks. The bulbs die after flowering, leaving only small offset bulbs, which will take another three years to reach maturity. But Gorgeous is worth it and at night, her seductive perfume blended with the scent of jasmine will drift through open windows and inspire wondrous dreams across the sleeping neighbourhood. So, how can you resist?