Chirping birds and flowering trees may seem out of place in Dubai’s desert but as buildings begin to emerge from the sand at the Expo 2020 site, so has some unlikely foliage.
From afar, the area looks like any other construction site. But upon closer inspection, flocks of birds can be seen swooping over the cranes and their chirps heard over the low rumble of cement mixers.
The birds hover over purple flowers on sage trees and perch on the branches of native palm and ghaf trees inside the large nursery supplying greenery to the 4.38 km sq site of the world’s fair.
“The birds and nature bring the site alive,” said Ayesha Al Marzooqi, assistant manager for innovation and sustainability for Expo 2020 Dubai.
“Greenery and landscaping is an integral part of the expo and the nursery is part of the expo story as much as the pavilions and buildings.”
Birds particularly enjoy the small red berries of the salvadora tree that are popularly known, in the Gulf, as the 'toothbrush tree' for producing 'miswak' tooth-cleaning sticks. The sticks are chewed to clean teeth and treat gum disease.
“We take pride in our native plants and we want to showcase and share these species with the world,” Ms Al Marzooqi said.
“We want to make sure these trees are seen on the expo site.”
The nursery cultivates new plants and cares for mature trees sourced from farms in Al Ain, Liwa and Mushrif Park in Dubai and provided by the emirate’s municipality.
More than 1,000 trees, including 300 palm trees, have been planted in the three theme districts that will feature distinctive pavilions representing sustainability, opportunity and mobility.
About 110 ghaf trees, weighing seven tons each and seven metres high, were planted in the expo gated zone where architectural exhibits, performance spaces and art installations will be on display.
The hardy and evergreen ghaf, thorny acacia trees and heat-tolerant yellow flowering techoma plants were chosen for the expo site for their resilience to the UAE’s climate.
The extensive green cover will be spiced up with fruit-bearing trees, grown in the country though not native to it, such as olive, fig, mango, lemon, bitter orange and pomegranate.
Under the shade of green nets, landscape architects and workers tend to saplings and ready trees for transplant across the site.
There are about 400,000 shrubs and 13,000 trees in the nursery, in the southern part of the site, and the team will take in an additional 450,000 shrubs and 4,000 trees in the lead-up to the fair.
The insecticide-free nursery is protected from pests, such as weevils, the nemesis of the palm tree, with a natural bait made from a date and water mixture. This liquid is put in buckets that are strapped to palm trunks to lure weevils into their watey graves and away from the precious fruit.
“This is a pesticide-free site so we look at different ways to protect the trees,” Ms Al Marzooqi said.
“For every 50 trees palm trees, there is a trap set up to attract weevils so that these don’t get to the trees. Expo is all about incorporating innovative solutions.”
Under the shaded netted sections, hundreds of thousands of seeds have been sown in large pots with tags specifying the species and date of planting.
Half of the nursery space will be handed over for expo use when the world’s fair opens its doors in less than 500 days.
The remaining area will continue to operate for the duration of the six-month fair to replace and maintain the green zones.
Construction on the expo site is on schedule for completion in October. Millions of visitors are expected from around the world.
“It’s hard to imagine this used to look like a desert,” said Ms Al Marzooqi.
“I have watched the site and the nursery grow as I drive in every day and there has been immense progress. All of our main projects will be delivered by October 2019. We are on track to deliver the project as scheduled.”
About the expo plant nursery
The on-site nursery contains some 400,000 shrubs and 13,000 trees.
An additional 450,000 shrubs and 4,000 trees will be delivered in the months leading up to the expo.
Ghaf, date palm, acacia arabica, acacia tortilis, vitex or sage, techoma and the salvadora are just some heat tolerant native plants in the nursery.
Approximately 340 species of shrubs and trees have been selected as part of the diverse landscape at expo.
The nursery team works exclusively with organic fertilisers and pesticides.
All shrubs and trees were supplied by Dubai Municipality.
Most of the flora is sourced from farms, nurseries across the country.
Plants and trees are re-potted when they arrive at nursery to give them room to grow.
Some more mature trees are kept in open areas or planted within the expo site.
Any green waste is recycled as compost for the plants.
Treated sewage effluent supplied by Dubai Municipality is used to meet the majority of the nursery’s irrigation needs.