Nick Leech visits the souk in Abu Dhabi’s Mina port, the largest source of plants in the capital
Find the roundabout with gigantic coffee pots, take the last exit and soon you’ll come to the gates of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi Free Port. An abandoned security booth teeters precariously on makeshift concrete pilings while port officials sit behind the dusty windows of an unassuming customs house. At this point, the only clues that you’re actually in a port are the cries of occasional seagulls and the masts of small boats which bob behind the shaded colonnade of Abu Dhabi’s plant souk.
Two things greet the steady convoy of bargain-hunters who arrive in their Mercedes and 4WD’s: a rampart of terracotta urns and planters capable of housing everything from humble bedding plants to mature trees, and a panoply of sun-bleached signs announcing everything from the illegality of unlicensed fishing to the larger-than-life names of the various traders who ply their trade here.
Rather than Wonderful Plants, Rainbow Garden Flowers, or Total Agriculture Solutions, the signs that I like best are the ones that tell you to ‘Reduce Speed’ because whenever I arrive that’s exactly what I always do. The souk has a charm that immediately slows my pulse, transporting me into a reverie where the cares of daily life seem very far away indeed.
This congeniality extends to the traders who, along with the sounds, smells and tangible drop in temperature associated with such a concentration of plants and greenery, remind me of my days as a gardener and nurseryman in London. As the blooms of fragrant roses are wafted into the cabs of passing cars I recognise the artful artlessness of their sales technique and am reminded of my own plant buying trips when I’m told that a particularly spectacular bougainvillea has come all the way from Holland.
At first glance, the different traders offer the same relatively limited palette of plants that repeats itself as you move from one display to another and this can be a little disappointing. However, the key to shopping here is to make at least one careful circuit of the souk, noting the location and price of any particular plants that catch the eye, before setting off to see if better specimens can be found at a keener price elsewhere. A walk through the back paths is more like a tour through some ramshackle allotment than a visit to a garden centre and its here, amongst the pots, hoses, and closely stacked sacks of manure and fertiliser, that the souks many unexpected gems wait to be discovered.
This weekend’s finds included flowering water lilies, shoulder-high papyrus, fruiting strawberry plants, and even ornamental pineapples replete with spectacular glaucous-pink foliage. Just the sight of these spectacular novelties is the kind of guilty pleasure that turns me into a regular souk visitor, whether I’m actually in the market for new plants or not.
For the water-wise gardener, the souk offers a variety of low water-demand species that will allow you to establish the plant-based infrastructure for your garden and around which more finely detailed planting decisions can be made using more unusual species sourced from further afield. For me, must-buy shrubs include the gloriously blossomed, jasmine-scented Frangipani (Plumeria obtusa), the delicate, vermilion-flowered Peregrina (Jatropha integerrima) and the Peacock Flower or Red Bird of Paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) which can be grown as a shrub, hedge or small tree. Personally, I find the bright scarlet stamens of the Australian bottlebrush (Callistemon spp.) a little too showy but its drought-tolerance, citrus-scented foliage and 80DHS price-tag for a 2m tall specimen would still gain it entry into my garden if I had more room.
Though ubiquitous, I never cease to be impressed by the tenacity and sheer flower power of Bougainvillea. Not only do I see it growing in the most inhospitable places, but the way the colour in its papery bracts vibrates visually in full sunshine means that it plays a key role in my garden where I’m also experimenting with the South African Cape Leadwort (Plumbago auriculata), a more delicate climber whose sky blue flowers create a similar visual effect in the partial shade of the evening.
The souk is open daily from 9am to 10pm but I always find myself visiting late in the afternoon when there’s still time enough for a decent look round before sunset. It’s at this point that the souk gets busier, my plant-hunting stops and I stand back to enjoy the carnivalesque scene that develops beneath the exposed neon displays of Emotion Flowers and Hollywood Corner. The serried ranks of sunflowers now take on the iridescent sheen of pinwheels, giant plastic swans and ornamental stallions rise like gallopers on a carousel, and the night transforms the souk from a market garden into a surreal funfair, complete with the screams and laughter of playing children.
This article originally appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi