Going local: Why the UAE's gardeners should use more indigenous plants

Meet the landscape architects who insist on working with indigenous plants in their designs – for both their clients and the planet

Kamelia Zaal’s landscape design in Koa Dubai uses 80 per cent indigenous plants. Courtesy Kamelia Zaal
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A new aesthetic is emerging in the UAE, as landscape architects and garden designers are increasingly drawing on indigenous and naturalised plant species as inspiration for their creations. Considered weeds by some, these plants are now increasingly sought-after, as clients are calling for more sustainable designs, which work in harmony with the surrounding landscape and have lower requirements for water.

For years, pioneering plant and seed collectors have braved the summer heat on trips to the desert and mountains to find specimens that will kick-start the long process of propagating and cultivating these local breeds. Tough love keeps these plants alive; overly rich compost or too much water means they could be killed with kindness. It’s often a matter of trial and error.

Indigenous plants as inspiration

“Indigenous plants are those that have originated in, or are characteristic to, a specific region or area,” explains horticulturalist Bruce Pedersen, who has spent 25 years working in the business of plants across the UAE, Qatar, Nigeria and Sudan.

What we're doing has pretty much not been done before and we're breaking new ground

“They are there by virtue of natural distribution processes without the aid of human intervention. Naturalised, adaptives or introduced species are plants that have been introduced into an area through human ­intervention from outside of its normal ­distribution range, and where through the nature of the particular plant or the environment, they are able to survive and flourish.” For this reason, it is sometimes difficult to ascertain which species have grown in the Arabian Gulf for hundreds of years, and which were simply brought here and thrived.

Local landscape architects Desert Ink is one such firm working to implement more local species into their designs. The company was behind the gardens at the recently opened Al Faya Lodge and Spa by Anarchitect, the five-room boutique hotel sited near Mount Alvaah in Sharjah, which utilises both indigenous and naturalised plant species. The company is also currently working on the landscaping for the Sustainability Pavilion at Dubai Expo 2020 in conjunction with Grimshaws, the architects behind The Eden Project in Cornwall, England.

Desert Ink designed the landscape for the Al Faya Lodge and Spa by Anarchitect in Sharjah. Courtesy Fernando Guerra
Desert Ink designed the landscape for the Al Faya Lodge and Spa by Anarchitect in Sharjah. Courtesy Fernando Guerra

Duncan Denley, the firm’s managing director, explains that they want to “change the way people look at landscape and landscape materials. It’s all about getting people to look at local plants and materials, such as Omani stone, and drawing on these for local projects,” he explains. The team has already tagged ghaf and acacia trees in anticipation for the requirements of the landscaping for Expo 2020’s much-anticipated Sustainability Pavilion, which is due to be completed at the end of this year.

“There’s some element of trial and error with this kind of innovation,” says Denley. “We know that some won’t do so well, but hopefully that will be a very small proportion. What we’re doing has pretty much not been done before and we’re breaking new ground and in landscape there aren’t many chances to do that. With the rarer plants, we don’t know how they are going to work, we just have to try it, as much of it is theory at this stage.”

Breaking through to the mainstream

The company has now completed three private garden designs using plants similar to the ones they will use in the Sustainability Pavilion. Slowly, appreciation for this type of planting is filtering through to the mainstream, says Denley. “When the Impressionists started painting, the public did not appreciate this style, yet 100 years later, it was considered groundbreaking and beautiful.

A rendering of the Sustainability Pavilion for Dubai Expo 2020. Courtesy Desert Ink
A rendering of the Sustainability Pavilion for Dubai Expo 2020. Courtesy Desert Ink

“We hope this is part of an education process that will help to change people’s opinion on what locally designed landscaping should look like in gardens and the public realm,” he adds. “And how to appreciate plants that are meant to be here, rather than those that rely on large amounts of water on a daily basis for their very survival.”

Reducing water waste is a big factor in using the country’s natural flora. Irrigation on some planting schemes is reduced by about 70 per cent by using natives and adaptives in ­conjunction with subsurface irrigation (instead of spraying water on the surface where it quickly evaporates).

Getting in touch with experts

In preparation for Desert Ink’s work at Expo, the team consulted with one of the UAE’s leading landscape designers, Kamelia Zaal, and visited her indigenous and adaptive landscape design at Koa, the development next to Al Barari on the Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Road in Dubai. Zaal’s design, the first of its kind in the UAE, uses about 80 per cent indigenous plants and 20 per cent native or adaptive species. It was planted a little over two years ago and she’s pleased with how it’s matured.

"At the moment, everything is fine," she tells The National. "I did do a bit of experimentation and there are a few things I want to add, and I'll include a few more flowers and some colour in the winter, but otherwise I haven't really changed it. It's still an evolving landscape."

Koa is Zaal’s biggest indigenous plant project to date and the designer is aiming to introduce more of these species on future projects wherever she can. Most recently, she’s been working with Edge Architects on a Dubai Hills project where her schematic specifically states they will use local plants.

Koa Dubai is Kamelia Zaal’s biggest indigenous plant project to date. Courtesy Kamelia Zaal
Koa Dubai is Kamelia Zaal’s biggest indigenous plant project to date. Courtesy Kamelia Zaal

All of this work comes as part of a larger trend, she observes, as her private clients are also asking for designs to be more sustainable and to use grey water recycling and drought-tolerant species. “It’s a big shift,” says Zaal, adding that she’s been happy to share her experience, information and ideas with Desert Ink. “I’ll send them a list of plants – why wouldn’t I?”

Getting it right, however, isn’t easy, she adds. It’s all about getting the balance between saving water, but also being practical and functional. It’s also about toeing the line between design and the well-being of the flora, plus being creative with the types of plant species being used. “It can be like giving an artist five colours to work with and I’d get a bit bored,” she says. “When ­designing with plants, ­different textures and colours are needed.”

Like with artists, landscape architects embrace the ­opportunity to work with new mediums. There are some ­species they know work, but if they are not being used ­regularly enough, they will ­disappear from the nurseries. “It’s good to work with these new plants to create new ­designs, and people need to realise how ­beautiful indigenous plants are,” says Zaal. “They are ­delicate and stunning and really add to the garden.

“At the end of the day, we are living in a desert and with climate change and water scarcity. The environment is being affected dramatically and very quickly.

“We need to do something ­immediately to change that, and I think everyone needs to take responsibility. My way of doing that was to start looking at indigenous plants because, obviously, they belong here. This is their habitat, after all, and therefore these are the plants we should be using.”