The UAE is rich in agricultural pioneers but has limited arable land and endures dry, scorching summers. An Emirati farmer who sees the desert climate as an opportunity has turned his love for prickly plants into the country’s largest cactus farm.
Nestled in Ras Al Khaimah’s Asimah Valley, the sprawling farm has more than 5,000 cacti and other succulents.
Obaid Al Mazroui, 54, a retired government official, grew up in the mountainous emirate amid farms, where he learnt about agriculture from his grandfather and father.
He started collecting drought-resistant plants in 1998 as a hobby. Over the years, it developed into a passion that gave way to a thriving garden at the base of the Hajar Mountains.
In March, most of the plants begin to flower, draping the farm in violet, pink, blue, orange and yellow hues.
“Some grow date palms, some grow fruits, some grow vegetables. I grow cactus,” Mr Al Mazroui says at his farm, where he spends a couple of hours every day.
The cacti and other succulent plants belong to the saguaro, stenocereus, pilosocereus, sansevieria, agave and euphorbia families.
While most of them are kept in one of three greenhouses, about 500 grow outside in direct sunlight. One of the greenhouses is dedicated to aloe cactus plants.
Mr Al Mazroui says he has more than 50 types of the aloe plant.
The farm is full of cactus plants in various shapes and sizes. Some are taller than eight metres while others are about the size of a fist and can add a touch of green to one’s desk or bedside table.
Some have long, white and soft hairlike spines, such as the monkey's tail cactus that is grown in hanging baskets. Others have hard and spiky branching stems.
“This is agave,” he points at a plant with large leaves ending in sharp tips. “[People] produce rope from its leaves.”
Many of the farm’s plants have health and medicinal benefits. The leaves of euphorbia can help diabetes patients, he says. Aloe vera is widely used to relieve sunburn and heal wounds.
Mr Al Mazroui imports the succulent plants from countries around the world, including the US, Mexico, Egypt, India, Italy, South Africa, Mozambique, the Philippines, Indonesia and Tanzania.
The plants do not require a lot of fertiliser. They are watered by hand once in 10 days in summer and once a month during winter. Water from a reservoir, which contains fish waste, is used for irrigation.
“This is the saguaro species,” Mr Al Mazroui says as he lifts a small pot. The cactus was grown from the seed of a plant imported from Italy.
“This size is what we imported, the small size. And see there, after 10, 20 years, they become like this. They grow more than six metres,” he says, pointing at tall plants that have torn open the roof of the greenhouse.
All of the plants have been grown from the farm’s own seeds, which Mr Al Mazroui and his two helpers have carefully selected from previous harvests.
“When we put the seed [in a pot], we give water one time and we cover it for one year.”
The pots are kept covered to maintain the same temperature and humidity.
Some of the plants are offered for sale to visitors, with prices ranging from Dh10 to Dh60. Mr Al Mazroui says about 90 per cent of the farm’s plants are not available on the market.
The most popular plant with visitors is sansevieria, he says. This type is characterised by its stiff, upright, sword-like leaves.
“These plants can be placed inside, as well as outside the house. They need little sunlight and have beautiful leaves.”
Al Mazroui has his eyes set on establishing the world’s largest cactus farm. He was inspired after he visited a cactus farm in Egypt, which he believes is the biggest in the Middle East.
“The UAE always strives to be number one in everything. Then why can’t it be number one in [growing] cactus? I want to increase the number of plants,” he says.
“I want more species but I don’t have space. I hope to find some big land to make a big garden for cactus.”