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basra’s miracle flower show
growing petunias without water

Waheed Ghanim
In temperatures of over 50 degrees C, in a place where there is either no water or it’s salty, putting on a flower show is something of a challenge. Basra’s gardeners tell how they did it.
6.06.2013  |  Basra

Despite the sunshine and the proximity to water, the locals in Basra don’t find it all that easy to grow decorative flowers. During the summer temperatures go as high as 50 degrees Celsius and the Shatt al-Arab waterway is very salty; here the fresh water of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers mixes with the Persian Gulf’s salty water. Desertification, resulting from the successive wars and urbanization, is another major problem as are polluted city waterways.

"In the past we’ve grown petunias that are very beautiful and have lovely colours,” Saad Nidal Assad, who heads the agricultural unit in the Qibla area of Basra, reports. “We then plant them in public parks but they die in two weeks because of the heat.”

This meant growing and keeping the flowers for Basra’s recent Flower Show was even more of a challenge. “We spent huge amounts of money to bring fresh water for the flowers,” says Amar Abdul Salam, director of the Agriculture Department in Basra. “One tank of water costs about US$40 and we need at least two tanks a day because of the heat.”

But the results are worth it, Salam believes. The flowers are on display for 45 days and have attracted crowds of locals to what was once former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s palace in Basra, next to the water.

Hundreds of plants are on display in the palace grounds, as are a variety of animals, including ostriches and pigeons.

Basra has started growing a lot of its own plants, rather than bringing them into the area from elsewhere, says Uday Abdul Wadud, the marketing manager of Al Faris Agricultural Services, who have carried out most of the state-sponsored horticulture projects in Basra; Al Faris managed to grow the first strawberry crop in Basra in 2012.

"The people working on their own plantations are gaining new experiences and developing new skills," Wadud explained. "We have discovered that it’s better to plant certain species of flowers and trees in Basra – they survive the tough conditions."

Wadud was also very proud that his company had been able to display the Bauhinia, a type of orchid tree, at Basra’s flower show. “Over the last 50 years, this plant has all but disappeared from our city,” Wadud said. “It has a beautiful scent and lovely flowers. A lot of people got really excited when they saw this tree again.”

The success of the flower show demonstrates that Basra is capable of competing in this area, says Mahdi Saleh Joudeh, mayor of nearby Safwan. “There were some 70,000 plants at this flower show and all of them were grown here,” Joudeh marvelled. “Unfortunately though there are no plants that can completely resist salinity, heat and pollution.”

Not everyone was happy with Basra’s flower show though. The horticultural exhibition was marketed as an international one and visitors had hoped to see international contributions. Although there were what some might consider “international plants”, only local humans appear to have taken part.

“If it’s an international show then why are there no foreigners?” complained one of those attending, local man Daoud Qassim. “I’m not sure if the presence of some ambassadors from Arab and other countries really counts,” he said before joking that, “it’s strange that the dignitaries from Iran and Turkey came along – these are the countries that have restricted water supplies to Basra.”

Meanwhile most of the visitors had to be satisfied with floral visions. Basra local, Ali Lafta came with his daughters to look at the flowers and the family bought one plant to take home. “We can take care of this plant but we can\'t plant our garden because it’s too expensive,” Lafta said. “The plants need lots of fresh water and sometimes we can\'t even afford to buy drinking water for our own use.”