For as long as she lived in the UAE, my mother grew plants. Our living room was a veritable forest with a cornucopia of indoor potted plants and creepers, and the balcony burst with the fragrance of reyhaan (Middle Eastern basil) and the bright pink and white shades of bougainvillea. She had les pouces verts, the floral version of the Midas touch — every plant she touched flourished.
This continued when we moved apartments and more recently when she immigrated to the US. Now she has a full-on urban garden, growing chili peppers, lime, and the tastiest tomatoes, alongside roses, jasmine, and a dignified olive tree.
I, on the other hand, even with the best of intentions, kill even the friendliest of plants — succulents, orchids… I just can’t get it right even when I try.
We used to have a potted plant in our apartment for decorative purposes, but it was always my husband’s responsibility to look after it. When one summer we were away for too long and came to find it listless, we gave it away and decided to never subject another plant to summer neglect.
Along the way, I have been transported momentarily to places of tranquility by the gardens of family and friends. My mother-in-law has a lovely garden around their home in Mangalore where she grows varieties of flowers and roses along with fruit-bearing trees like the creamy custard apple, several cultivars of banana and mango, the delicate jackfruit, and the more-ish papaya, which fortunately for me was bearing fruit when we visited in October and I got to bring one with me to enjoy in Dubai.
I remember when my cousin showed me around their home garden in Toronto many years ago — my uncle taking great pleasure in growing zucchinis, eggplants, and other fruit and vegetable plants. My friend’s mother has a beautiful, luscious garden in their village home in Kerala. My husband’s uncle and his family own and run an extensive plant nursery surrounded by luxurious tropical trees in Sakleshpur, which we visited in October. My friends in Dubai have flourishing urban gardens on their balconies and terraces. Just this weekend, a friend’s mother gave us a post dinner tour of her suburban garden in Dubai, showing us her 9-year-old son’s pumpkin shoots, glossy watermelons against sprawling leaves, and most endearingly, a resplendent palm that had grown from the date seeds she discarded while sipping tea in the garden.
Three weeks ago my friends painted such a picture of serenity telling me of their family farm in Al Madam, Sharjah that I almost smelled the scent of the fresh herbs and heard the chickens clucking. They also brought me a housewarming gift: an orchid. I had received an orchid from another friend some years ago and hadn’t succeeded in looking after it well. Even the hardy thyme which grew from a branch that broke off the plant a friend had gifted my mother, lasted for just over year before I relinquished its care to my mother’s plant-friendly neighbor.
Still in its plastic pot, wrapped in cellophane, and placed hurriedly in the only thing I had that could house it — a big vase — I watered the orchid, went for a week-long holiday to India, and came back to find its leaves starting to yellow and the little bud at the tip shriveled and about to drop off. Just over a week back from the holiday and with an hour or so to kill between engagements, I thought, ‘I better get the right pot for that orchid if I want to give it a chance to survive in my care.’ I quickly looked for plant nurseries on Google Maps and found a whole bunch right next to one another — how convenient — in Al Warsan, an area that was new to me. I also called a friend who had explicitly instructed me not to buy a plant before consulting him and he advised me on what I should look for when buying a pot for an orchid and why. Pretty easy: the water needs to drain away since that’s what happens in flower’s jungle habitat — it grows on trees and it never sits in water, so the pot has to have holes and if it doesn’t it the orchid should be placed over a layer of hydro balls or stones and to be sprayed instead of watered. (Yes, my orchid was sitting in water all this time, hence the yellowing leaves.)
I cruised along the gravel path, peering through the window at the wondrous world of plants, looking for a place that sells pots and I found this place with terracotta everything: pots, fountains, decorative figures… you name it, they had it. Getting out of the car, I got greeted by a young man. Our conversation that started with a pot for orchids ended with him recommending another nursery in the vicinity after I casually asked about fruit-bearing plants while paying for the orchid pot. Curious, I found myself driving to it and on arrival saw the unmistakably mighty Lebanese cedar tree in its awning. The nursery had an incredible assortment of fruit and vegetable-bearing trees — even the tropical soursop (that I only know about because a Dutch friend who is a tropical fruit aficionado had stayed with us this past week)! I found myself intrigued with the details of the care of the different plants and I got drawn to the — literally — fruitful lime tree, which the gardener assured me bore fruit all year long and survived the searing temperatures of a Dubai summer if covered during the season’s hottest months.
And just like that, I bought a lime tree.
I drove back to the terracotta shop to buy a pot for it and the gardeners there re-potted it for me with some fresh soil while our conversation revealed that the young man was a 22-year-old motocross racer from Bangalore missing the monsoon mud races in Sakleshpur. Small world.
As I drove, I thought about how my husband would react on seeing the tree, and he obliged with the anticipated surprise.
I mean — I bought a tree!
Now it stands in splendor on our balcony, amused, asking me all tongue-in- cheek if this was a case of life imitating art. I play the role of a mother who’s an avid gardener in a modern-day take of Rapunzel. Rehearsals started a week ago for the show in December. Am I “method acting”? Yet, it is my friendly accomplice in this: My first voluntary venture to befriend a tree.
And the orchid? It sits in all its glimmering glory in its new pot — in perfectly diffused light. It’s going to be just fine.