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Beyond the date palm

Varying a plant palette comes with no guarantee of success, but despite that there is a growing trend for more experimentation in the region.

The Delonix from South Africa is a popular exotic plant for regional use
The Delonix from South Africa is a popular exotic plant for regional use

Varying a plant palette comes with no guarantee of success, but despite that there is a growing trend for more experimentation in the region.

Take a look out of any window in the Gulf, and as well seeing the ubiquitous construction work, architectural wonders of the world and 4x4s, you will probably see a date palm.

If the region could be summed up in one plant, it's the palm. The date harvest at Al Ain is a major festival, palms grace the Saudi national coat of arms, and most famously of all, Dubai is building artificial islands in the shape of this incredibly widespread and popular plant.

Designers don't want to put a new plant into the design that isn't proven.

Indeed, the date palm is so popular that you could be forgiven for thinking that it is the only option for planting in the region, but in reality there are many other plants in use.

And as native plants become in increasingly short supply due to the fast pace of development in the Middle East, there is a growing trend for using non-native or exotic plants in regional landscaping.

The question is can plants used to the tropical climes of Malaysia, for example, survive in the harsh, arid desert climate of the Middle East?

Varying the plant palette

Many of the plants that have been used in the Gulf for years can in fact be classed as exotic, such as the cactus from South West America, and the Bird of Paradise, but despite this, landscape designers still tend to be cautious when specifying plants and stick with the tried and tested, says Graham Alderslade, nursery manager, at Dubai nursery Green Works, supplier to the Al Barari development in Dubailand.

"Everyone is trying new plants, but for the designers, they don't want to put a new plant into the design that isn't proven. If [a designer] is going to do a very big project with a new plant and it dies, he's going to have to replace it all. That's why landscapers go for things they know will work," he says.

How adventurous they are depends on the individual landscape architect, he adds. "Some landscape architects are quite willing to trial, others prefer to stick to the palette that they know."

Trying out new plants is "very risky", given that landscaping is still in its infancy in the region, says Paul Bradley, principal of landscape designers Design Concepts.

"We can really only go back 20 years when it comes to landscaping history and there are lots of things to consider. For instance, the soil in Jumeirah is high in [the plant nutrient] boron, which blocks nitrate uptake. You can't just keep putting fertiliser on plants there, they won't survive," he says.

While varying the plant palette may be risky, there is a push towards more experimentation in the region, however. Raffles Hotel, which opened earlier this year, included a Singapore-inspired botanical garden, and Al Barari is including themed gardens as part of its greenery offer, for example.

There is room for landscape designers to be more adventurous, opines Rafi Ohanian, general manager of plant suppliers Exotica Emirates. "We have to get out of this old school thinking of [planting] the same plants everywhere. There are possibilities of introducing new varieties, testing them," he says.

Don Prost, director of landscape contractor Greenscapes, agrees. "There are new plants introduced into landscaping every year, and just because something hasn't been tried before doesn't mean it's not good," he says.

Risks in transit

Part of the reason why designers are reluctant to experiment more with the plant palette is the complications involved with importation.

Under current legislation, plants or palms in soil cannot be imported. This is less of a problem when importing exotic plants from the US or Australia, where plants tend to be grown in certified peat moss, but can create difficulties if importing from countries such as India or Thailand.

There are two main problems with importing plants, says Prost. The first is the long lead time created by the fact that plants first have to grown in soil, then be transferred into peat and given time to adapt before being ready for shipping.

The second problem is poor survival rate while plants are waiting for clearance from authorities. "If you don't get them cleared quickly, they're going to be sitting in the port and they're not going to be doing very well," he says.

As well as a long lead-time, shipping is also expensive, adding to the overall cost of a project.

The problems don't stop once the plants are in the country either with many plants proving unable to adapt to the different climate. The Canary Island date palm (Phoenix canariensis) for example, does very well in locations around the world, but attempts to plant the palm in the Gulf have been less successful, according to Bradley.

An uncertain survival rate is one reason why designers don't experiement more with planting. A large number of the plants used in the botanical garden at Raffles hotel did not survive the garden's first summer, in spite of being cultivated in a nursery first but the team behind the project took the defeat in good spirits.

"Unlike a usual landscape for a compound with a limited plant palette, the plant collection of a ‘botanic garden' has to be very wide and some experimental element is expected," said Wan Wan Loh, senior designer, of Singapore Garden City, which did the landscape design on the botanical garden project, at the time.

Technological advances

With modern nursery techniques, bringing exotic plants into the region is becoming easier, however. Advances in horticultural technology mean plants can be monitored in climate-controlled nurseries before being transferred to the harsher outdoor environment.

Al Barari, which is trialling new plants for its themed gardens, is using this approach. Dubai Municipality is also known as a pioneer for trying new plants and nurseries and landscapes, which if successful, then tend to get adopted at a wider scale.

The use of soil additives, something that has significantly taken off over the past few years in the region, can also help. Soil additives enable plants to cope with salinity, and promote plant growth, according to organic soil product supplier Zander.

Sophisticated irrigation methods and improved maintenance also mean a plant's ability to adapt now is greater than was the case a decade ago.

Survival of the fittest

Survival of exotic plants also depends to a large extent on the choice of the plants used. The Gulf climate is particularly punishing on plants, with its high humidity and temperatures killing off all but the hardiest vegetation.

Even with the best care in the world, there are some plants that simply won't make it because of the different extremes between the climate in the summer and winter.

Unsurprisingly, plants already used to dealing with extreme climates tend to do well in the region. "If they come from the same type of climate, such as Arizona, they'll do well in Dubai," says Prost.

"It's not necessary but it's a good first step. There are other plants that are able to take the heat. If you give it water and fertiliser, plants do well and thrive even if it's 20 degrees hotter."

Some exotic plants

Australasia

Bougainvillea - South America

Ixora - Tropical Asia

Echinocactus - Central America

Adenium - East Africa

Pandanis - Australia

Furcraea - Central America

Canna - South America

Delonix - East Africa

Tecoma - South America

Roystonea - North America

Callistemon - Australasia

Gardenia - Throughout the tropics

Jacaranda - South America

Terminalia - Throughout the tropics

Source: Green Works

 

Plants from other deserts, such as cacti, can work well precisely because they are already adapted for a hot, arid climate in saline conditions.

However, plants do not necessarily need to be desert plants to survive in the region. Careful maintenance can also make a difference to a plant's chance of survival, say experts. "If you bring some of these plants here and you just plant them in the middle of the desert, they'll die," says Alderslade.

"But if you put in some windbreaks, create an environment, you can increase the range of plants." He suggests that as a general rule, tropical plants tend to be the best suited to the region since they are already adapted to cope with the humidity.

Newer plants that are beginning to gain a foothold are fruiting plants such as olives, citruses and carobs, according to Ohanian. The plants will not provide quality fruit yields, but from a decorative perspective can survive in the region, he says.

The welfare of a plant also varies from one region to another. Climatic variations between the regions mean that a plant in Bahrain could fare completely differently from a plant in Saudi Arabia, for example.

Even within countries there are variations, with the interior of Dubai, for example, more arid than the coastal areas of Jumeirah.

The key to increasing a plant's chance of survival is understanding its natural habitat and ensuring its new one is a good match, says Alderslade.

"You need to look at the natural habitat where the plants grow and you can work back from that," he says.

"If it comes from the tropics and is used to the humidity, it's already halfway adapted to here. If they grow in a forest, you know it won't work, [as] we don't have forests here. If you look maybe close to the beach, it means they're much more salt tolerant."

It is here where the landscape designer should give way to the horticulture specialist, says Prost.

While some landscape architects have an excellent understanding of horticulture, others are less experienced and sometimes request plants that are totally unsuitable, he says.

"Generally we get a tender document for the projects [from the landscape designer]. Sometimes it's a legitimate plant list, and other times you think a guy just looked at a book and chose randomly names of plants. We have had some landscape architects propose indoor plants. We have to say we don't think that's going to work."

Finding the balance

While many are still reluctant to experiment more with the plant palette, once designers have seen a plant working elsewhere, history shows they are more willing to give it a try.

While no one is denying the appeal of native plants such as the date palm, it looks as if in the future there will have to be more experimentation with the plant palette - if for no other reason than simply to find enough plants to meet demand.

The key, says Prost, is to find the balance "between new and interesting versus what you know will survive, and what is available."

USING EXOTIC PLANTS: Pros and cons

Pros

Differentiates project

Sets trend

Fewer constraints on availability

Cons

Uncertain survival rate

Long lead-time

More expensive

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