Why Pakistan’s once-blooming ‘city of flowers’ is wilting

High inflation, new housing projects and water shortages are affecting the traditions of Peshawar

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As Pakistan’s “city of flowers”, Peshawar is known for bright bouquets of colourful blooms sold by roadside traders and in markets along its famous City Circular Road.

But a reduction in growing space, rising inflation and a lack of irrigation is forcing florists to consider other ways to make a living, putting a decades-old tradition under threat.

As a boy, florist Mir Alam, 36, learnt how to cultivate marigolds and roses by watching his father on their farm in Bazidkhel, a suburban area of Peshawar district. He eventually picked up the family trade.

But five years ago, his family were forced to stop growing flowers of their own after a drop in irrigation in his village and instead he opened a shop in a floral market on the city.

If this was not bad enough for Mr Alam, the move has coincided with a fall in customers, leaving him pondering changing businesses completely.

“Irrigation water is sometimes not available in our village, which is why I decided to start selling flowers in the shop,” Mr Alam told The National as he sorted bundles of blooms before trimming them behind the counter of his shop in the floral market on the City Circular Road.

“A problem is that our business is profitable in wedding seasons, mostly in the winter. In summers we earn barely enough to cover our expenses.”

Over the past two decades, a huge rise in housing projects in the area has caused farming areas to shrink. The new concrete surfaces do not hold rainwater and it flows away in floods, Dr Hameed Jamali, a climate change expert based in Peshawar, told The National.

It has presented a tough choice to florists who have spent their lives in the industry.

“In our area, housing projects are on the rise and farming space is shrinking, which is affecting our trade,” said florist Sadaqat Khan, 28.

“My father initially started working in this floral market. Now I am also working here.

“My father told me this market has existed here for more than 70 years, although the floral trade in Peshawar is much older,” he said.

Historical connection

Peshawar has a historical connection with flowers.

The memoirs of Mughal Emperor Zahirud Din Babur, who lived from 1483 to 1530, describe the Peshawar valley as “like a painting … as far as the eye could see were fields of blossoms. In springtime in Peshawar, the fields of flowers are very beautiful indeed.”

During the fifth century, Buddhist monks would bring flowers to Peshawar city’s Gor Gutri pilgrimage site, which is now an archaeological site.

“Flowers have characterised Peshawar region historically,” said historian Dr Ali Jan. “Peshawar valley’s ancient name, Gandhara, means the Land of Fragrance.”

The city is best-known for its yellow marigolds and roses of many colours, as well as carnations locally referred to as “shabo” and jasmine called “mehendi” in the local dialect.

These blooms have been dispatched across the country and beyond for decades. Marigolds are grown in four main varieties in Peshawar – the moray, gainda, hybrid and jafferi.

These varieties are dispatched to other areas of the country, said florist Azizullah Khan, 40, who worked in Islamabad and Karachi for around 15 years before moving to Peshawar.

Each morning, florists receive bundles of flowers from farmers. They trim the flowers with scissors before washing the bouquets and then placing them in the freezer, where they remain fresh for two or three days, said Mr Khan.

As well as florists and farmers, the trade involves garland-makers, transporters, wholesalers and retailers.

A surge in the annual inflation rate in Pakistan, driven by a significant rise in housing and utilities costs, has also hurt traders. Inflation reached 29.2 per cent in November 2023, up from the previous month's 26.9 per cent.

“Rising inflation rate has affected our business and our clientele has been decreasing,” said Mr Khan.

“One problem is artificial flowers, which many people buy and use on wedding stages and other occasions time and again, without a need to buy fresh flowers from us.”

Abu Zar, an 18-year-old florist, told The National that outside the winter wedding season, flowers sell well around Muslim festivals when people buy blooms and garlands to welcome pilgrims who perform Hajj and Umrah.

“My father previously had a shop in Peshawar’s Tehkal locality selling flowers and garlands. But later we shifted our shop to this floral market, which is more famous for this trade,” Mr Zar said.

“The peak season of our trade begins in winter and on Eid days when people buy flowers. However, the trade declines in summer.”

Customer Muhammad Waqas, 23, visited the market to buy flowers for a ceremony at home.

“We always visit this market whenever we need flowers since a vast variety is always available here,” he said.

But with florists considering new ways to make a living, customers may soon have to take their trade elsewhere.

Mr Alam said he plans to start a dairy farm or enter the hotel business.

“My father used to do this trade and I have been a florist since childhood,” said Mr Alam. “However, due to little income, I may abandon this profession with a heavy heart.”

Updated: December 29, 2023, 6:09 PM