11 April 2010
With Spring—the onset of which Egypt marks on 21 March—in the air, the annual Cairo Spring Flower Festival opened at one of Cairo’s fabulous botanical venues, the Orman Garden in Doqqi. The month-long festival is a rare chance for residents of Greater Cairo to see their grey city dotted with life and colour. The gay colours spill over into many a home when the visitors buy specimens for keeps. Red tape and poor services, however, cast bleak shadows over the overwhelming beauty.
The Orman Garden was originally established as a botanical garden by Egypt’s ruler from 1863–1879 Khedive Ismaïl. It now contains about 100 plant species, including rarities, and is a self-financed State facility that depends mainly on revenues generated by entrance tickets—which are maintained, by law, at a meagre 50 Piastres—and the annual Spring Flower Festival. The management has nevertheless managed to preserve the day-to-day running despite countless difficulties. The garden manager and festival supervisor Adel Aqil told Watani that the damage caused by visitor carelessness and inappropriate behaviour during holidays and feast days, especially the Spring feast of Sham al-Nassim when enormous numbers flock to this oasis of plants and flowers, is really huge and requires large financial resources to repair.
The spring flower festival attracts large numbers of flower growers, public, commercial and private, along with producers of all sorts of related accessories. “The art of gardening has a strong presence here,” Dr Aqil says. Among the participants from the public, are the Centre for Agricultural Research, the Zuhriya Gardens, and the Qubba Palace Gardens. “The presence of a large number of producers is all in the visitors’ interests, since competition lowers prices.”
Many people complain that over the past few decades several of the flowers once common in Egypt have disappeared from flower shops and markets, including the lotus flowers and local roses famous for their lovely scent. Dr Aqil says that although these flowers were famed for their fragrance, they were short-lived and faded a day or two after purchase. “We had to choose between preserving the strong scent and improving the quality,” he says. “We resorted to genetic engineering to produce new strains that were able to survive longer. Egyptian roses still exist, although most consumers prefer new varieties.”
Among other flowers that have been engineered for longevity are tulips and orchids, which can now live for a month.
No matter of luxury
Flowers are not the only items for show, however, and the debate continues over the healing properties of certain plants. Some specialists in the pharmaceuticals industry have become fervent advocates of abolishing chemical drugs and returning to traditional herbal treatment methods. Others, however, warn that people should be careful when dealing with plants as a way of self-medication. Dr Aqil says that although a plethora of plants could help cure various illnesses, physicians and pharmacists alone should decide on the suitability of treatment as some plants have side effects that would be dangerous to ignore.
Most Egyptians have an inborn interest in plants and flowers, even though, according to Dr Aqil, this interest was far greater in the pre-revolutionary era. “I benefited from the achievements of the 1952 Revolution,” he says. “But I believe that the gardens with the greatest value were founded before 1952.
“Sad to say, in the new generations technology is what matters. They spend hours visiting the Internet and have no time for tasting the beauty of nature. But rising pollution has made the increase in greenery and plant growing a necessity. It is no longer a matter of luxury to have wider green areas and increase the number of trees in city streets. Apart from an interest in growing potted plants in their balconies, it is difficult to find other examples to demonstrate the Egyptian people’s concern about plants.”
Game of flowers
A colourful exhibit on display near the garden’s entrance is a beautiful arrangement of flowers. To our surprise, it turned out that the owner and designer was former football star Taher al-Sheikh. Since retiring from his beautiful game, Sheikh has become one of Egypt’s most famous garden designers.
“After I retired I went back to my old hobbies of growing flowers and landscape design,” Mr Sheikh says. His interest began as early as the age of seven, when after his father passed away he was sent to live with an uncle in Alexandria. This uncle had an Italian friend who noticed the little boy’s budding artistic talent and gave him drawing lessons. At school he gained top marks for art, but wanted to play football and entered the faculty of physical education. When he retired, he moved to Saudi Arabia and worked in flower arrangement making garden designs. He travelled widely, touring the gardens in the countries he visited and studying the latest fashions in design and arrangement. He returned to Egypt in 1996 and bought a farm near the Mansouriya Canal in Giza. Because, he says, of his passion for the subject, he was successful and began planning gardens for hotels, resorts and private villas. Mr Sheikh, who has two exhibits in this year’s show, now employs 350 people including agricultural engineers, designers and office staff.
Mr Sheikh says the most popular garden styles nowadays involve colour. “Egypt has no specific style because we have fallen under the influences of a lot of colonial powers, each with its own art and architecture,” he says. “For myself, I was raised in Alex where the Graeco-Roman style is dominant. I design a garden in accordance with its size and location. But most of my clients prefer modern flowers installed among artificial rocks dotted with stainless steel, which makes it look like transparent glass. I also paint murals. I make the designs and a specialist engraves them on wood or stainless steel.”
Among the most magnificent in the show is the orchid display. Again we were surprised to learn that the designer and owner is none other than neurosurgeon Mohamed Naguib, who spent several years in the United States but recently decided to return to Egypt and grow flowers alongside his medical profession. Dr Naguib says that while in the US, he visited flower shows both there and abroad. “I liked orchids, mainly because they are difficult to propagate and grow,” he told Watani. “They need meticulous effort and special treatment, just like my profession. There are two ways to propagate orchids: either to pollinate a flower with another, which creates hybrid flowers with different colours, or to implant buds in jars, which creates flowers totally similar to the original. Orchids are a very big plant family as with 35,000 varieties worldwide. After picking, an orchid can live for ten days.”
Sadly, the pretty picture in the garden is contrasted with other aspects of the venue as fit for admitting members of the public, and both Dr Naguib and Mr Sheikh criticised the lack of proper services and, most importantly, clean toilets. Would-be visitors might also like to note that there are huge divergences in terms of entry prices, with the exhibitions by schools, public gardens and the Public Administration for Agriculture being the lowest in price.
But even so, the festival is worth a visit—and maybe several return ones. After all, the popular saying goes: For the sake of the flowers, the weeds should be tolerated.