Sheikh Mana bin Khalifa Al Maktoum's vision for the focal point of the exterior of Raffles Hotel Dubai was nothing if not a challenge.
A keen gardener himself with an extensive knowledge of plants, the Sheikh, owner of the newly opened Raffles hotel in Dubai, wanted to create within the one-hectare space on the podium roof of the hotel a Singapore-inspired botanical garden.
"The botanical garden is his baby," members of staff told me when I first visited the hotel. The Sheikh played an essential role in defining the concept of the garden in the early stages as well as working closely with the landscape designers and local maintenance team on plant selection during the later development of the project, they said.
The plant collection of a ‘botanic garden’ has to be very wide and some experimental element is expected.
The brief for Singapore Garden City, the landscape design firm entrusted with realising the vision, was to design a garden with four individual areas representing the essential elements of life - Water, Wind, Earth and Fire. These would converge on a large glass dome, the Eye of Horus, god of the sky, according to Egyptian legend, which would act as the garden's centrepiece.
"The Eye of Horus is seen as the guardian of the essential elements in life - the four elements of fire, wind, earth and water," Wan Wan Loh, senior designer, of Singapore Garden City, a subsidiary of the National Parks Board Singapore, explained.
"From the centre of the pupil, imaginary axes radiate into four markers (sculptures) symbolising the elements. These markers separate the roof garden into four quadrants, each quadrant features one element. A main strolling path links up the four gardens through the markers, providing a clear sense of direction for the users," she added.
Each of the four areas was themed and colour coded to match its separate identity. A display of crimson flora was used in the Fire section of the garden, for example, while different species of long-grass feature in the Wind area. The main feature of the Water garden is a stream carrying various species of water plants, which flows and gathers at a large oval shaped pond.
Each area also contains its own feature or sculpture, with a fan used in the wind area, for instance, and a shiny metal sculpture included in the earth section. Each garden also has a secondary strolling path for exploration of the plants within its area.
A spa housed in a pavilion imported from Bali adds additional interest and variety to the garden.
Over 129,000 different plants were used to create the garden, including some of which were used for the first time in the region, according to the landscape firm.
The garden has some 260 trees, 650 palms including the hotel chain's signature Traveller's Palm, 1,400 bamboo plants, 500 aquatic plants, over 100,000 shrubs and 1,000 climbers.
"Unlike a usual landscape for a hotel compound with a limited plant palette, the plant collection of a ‘botanic garden' has to be very wide and some experimental element is expected," said Loh, adding that some plants were deliberately included with the full knowledge that they might not survive in the aim of creating something truly unique.
More than 70% of the plants were sourced from Asia, with the remainder coming from Dubai, and many were tended to in nurseries before being transferred to the garden of the hotel.
Irrigation was supplied by piping placed underneath the soil with the aim being to recycle irrigation water.
Naturally enough, creating a botanical garden in the inhospitable harsh and hot Middle Eastern climate has not been without its headaches.
One of the major setbacks in the realisation of the garden was the fact that a number of the plants that had been initially planted wilted over the hot summer.
"Some of the plants did not establish and this might be due to several factors such as adequate watering immediately after the planting, and providing of shading," said Chuah Hock Seong, director of National Parks Board Singapore, who also worked on the project.
"The most critical factor for plants to grow in Dubai is the planting media and water. The planting media has to be well mixed with organic matter (compost) and the plants have to be adequately watered especially during the hot summer. The root zones have to be drenched with water at certain levels throughout the day," he added.
Irrigation will probably be increased a little next summer to improve the plants' chance of survival and insecticide and pesticide are also being explored further, said Mr Romani, head of the gardening team that will handle the maintenance for the botanical garden going forward.
Whilst still in its infancy as this article was going to press, a visit to the Raffles Dubai hotel garden is impressive. It appears not so much as a garden as a private park and despite its proximity to the Sheikh Rashid road, the garden still manages to transmit a sense of calm and tranquillity.
The garden is also conducive to socialising with in addition to the café that will be housed inside the glass dome, pathways leading at either end to adjacent restaurants and bar areas. A part of the garden has also reserved for lawn with the idea being to set up tents during the holy month of Ramadan.
So far it would seem that the Sheikh's vision of introducing a botanical garden into Dubai has succeeded; what remains, of course, is to see how the garden survives another summer.