Examining the different, but still barely blossoming, gardenias in the Giza Botanical Gardens in Cairo, Mayssa engages Hassan in conversation about this baby tree she is considering adopting as a house plant.
“Gardenias are very tricky plants. I have tried them in the garden before, but they died. It was very sad, as it always is when a flower dies. But I am trying to learn the best way to take care of gardenias because they are so beautiful and soft,” she said.
“When I come here to the botanical exhibition, I don’t just come to buy. I come to learn as much as I can as it is an opportunity to meet people who have spent a lifetime gardening. I learn so much from speaking to them — much more than when I buy,” she said.
For the last 25 years since she got married and had her own house with a small garden, Mayssa has never skipped the annual botanical exhibition at the Giza Botanical Gardens.
“First of all, I enjoy looking at the flowers and trees, but I also come to buy new plants for my garden. During the past few years there have been so many new seeds introduced to Egypt, and we have several new plants still coming through the exhibition,” she said.
This year the exhibition, held since the 1940s, opened on 10 March at the Botanical Gardens in the Dokki district where it has been hosted for over two decades. It is scheduled to last until 10 May.
Mayssa said that she does not just come once either. “This is not the best way to look at the wealth of flowers and plants on display. I come three or four times, each time to look at part of the exhibition and spend time talking to the gardeners. I also talk to other people with a real interest in gardening because I learn a lot from them,” she added.
The Botanical Gardens, within walking distance of the Dokki Metro station on a pleasant day, are one of the largest and oldest gardens in Egypt and were originally built by the khedive Ismail in the 19th century to outdo the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.
The botanical exhibition takes place on about one third of the gardens. The other two-thirds offer space for picnicking and house museums and research centres that serve the scientific interest of university students and researchers from the Ministry of Agriculture.
The Woman With a Boy In A Picture
What is more typical, perhaps, for visitors to the annual botanical exhibition is a one-day visit.
Dalia always comes for the third week of the event when it is less crowded and not as packed as in the first two weeks.
She was with Adam, her 17-year-old son, who was helping her with the selection of several indoor and outdoor plants. Dalia has brought Adam to the exhibition since he was seven. It was this, she said, that helped her develop her own interest in gardening.
“We still have the picture of the first time we came and the first ficus tree we saw. It is still there,” Adam said.
Taking pictures is certainly something that the majority of visitors seem to like, whether or not they also entertain the idea of buying any plants.
“It makes beautiful pictures to put on Facebook and Instagram,” said Nermine, a high-school pupil who had come with a group of friends “for the walk. Then we go and have our lunch,” she said.
Last year, however, Nermine was inspired by the visit to the exhibition to buy a colourful outdoor plant for Mother’s Day.
According to Sherine Mekki, one of the participants in this year’s exhibition, it is becoming quite usual for people to pick up gifts from the show. “I think this is an indication that more and more people are interested in having plants around their houses or on their balconies,” she said.
This year is the second for Mekki at the botanical exhibition, and she was finding a growing taste among visitors to buy gifts. Some people, she said, bought a large selection for the gardens of friends. Young people bought gifts for their friends, and some bought birthday gifts too.
This relatively new trend of buying plants as gifts has been keeping business going despite the inevitable increases in prices that have meant not just more expensive plants but also more expensive pots, tools and fertilisers.
Another reason, Mekki said, that was keeping business going was the wider diversity of plants that have found their way onto the Egyptian market. “Some are really inexpensive, especially if they are in small pots. You can buy them starting at LE5, and of course they are very popular. Most people do not just buy one plant, but maybe two or three,” she said.
What were most popular, said Sami Mohamed, another participant, were colourful flowers. “In the past, people would go for green indoor plants. They would buy one or two medium-sized pots for their living rooms. But now with the availability of pots to hang over balconies, people like to have many small pots of colourful plants,” he said.
He added that season-extending fertilisers that keep flowers blossoming for longer were helping this trend. People were also buying herbal plants for their kitchens, he said. “I have sold a lot of mint — there are quite a lot of different varieties now, as well as a lot of rosemary and oregano. People put the plants in their kitchens next to the windows for the nice smell and for culinary purposes.”
With the growing trend for people to live in houses with gardens, many are also looking for landscaping advice at the exhibition.
Heba Gado, a landscape gardener participating in the exhibition, said that the first three weeks had been very busy for her. “We get lots of clients who come to us to either start their gardens or to give them a more designed look. People come with the intention of buying some trees and plants, but then decide to seek professional help on spacing and planting,” she said.
“This is particularly the case with people who plan to invest in some of the more expensive imported plants,” she added.
Palms And Cactuses:
The larger size of some home gardens seems to be allowing a wider interest in home-planted organic fruits.
Ahmed Ali is a third-generation dealer in fruit trees. He has been participating in the exhibition for years, first with his grandfather, then with his father, and now on his own. Over the past few years, Ali said that he has seen a new kind of client.
“Before, it was quite a one-off thing for someone to want to buy a mango tree for their garden. Our clients were mostly in the agriculture business, and they would come to look for particular plants. However, today it is very common for people to come to buy several mango, orange, avocado and apple trees for their gardens. They say they want to eat their own chemical-free fruit,” he explained.
The growing interest in house-gardening has also expanded, according to Mohamed Salman into the purchase of palm trees.
“This was unusual for visitors in the past. But today, with people having larger house gardens they think of having some trees that can bear fruit. The palms are not inexpensive.
Some are more expensive than the colourful trees imported from China, for example, but they get a lot more interest from what I can see. They suit Egyptian taste, it seems,” Salman said.
Sales of colourful cactuses were also going up at the exhibition. “They have been increasing from one year to the next,” said Nawal Al-Rais, a dealer.
“In the past, the varieties of cactus were very limited, very uncolourful, and very off-putting because they were associated in the minds of many with cemetery plants. But over the past few years with the introduction of colourful cactuses — there are now hundreds of species available — people have come round to them for their balconies and gardens,” Al-Rais said.
Hoda, a housewife who was making a selection at Al-Rais’ stand, agreed. “I would never have thought that I would find cactuses that were so beautiful with orange, violet and yellow flowers,” she said.
Hoda was happy with the new selection because they are not as expensive as other plants, fit indoors and outdoors, and don’t require a lot of attention.
“This is one of the best things about this exhibition. It introduces us to things we are not familiar with. My balcony plants have changed a great deal over the years thanks to this annual exhibition,” Hoda said.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly