Saturday, 5 March 2022

The Plants Edition

The Beginning

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If it’s green and it grows, we’ve got it covered

Spring has sprung, and as the temperatures rise and we venture out from under our blankets and onto our balconies, we’re embracing the joy that being outside in the fresh air and tending to our favorite green companions brings.

Plants make us happy and calm us down — it’s proven by Science™. So whether you’re thinking about dipping your fingers in the soil for the first time, trying to put down roots in a community of growers, or just looking to get out and spend some more time in green environments, you’re likely to reap the benefits when it comes to mental health. In this month’s issue of Your Wealth, we unpack how plants lift our spirits without saying a word, bring you all the tips and tricks in our arsenal on sourcing and caring for your leafy friends, and point you in the direction of some of Egypt’s most spectacular and underappreciated green spaces. Happy growing, folks.

PLANT PSYCHOLOGY

Greening your space for your own sanity: Indoor plants have become a bit of a fad in recent years and one that has unsurprisingly accelerated since the outbreak of the pandemic. Beyond their aesthetic contribution to the inside of your home or office space, having indoor plants can actually offer a whole lot of benefits to your mental health and wellbeing. From calming you down to keeping you focused, nurturing a little indoor forest might help you better cope with the stressors that exist beyond your four walls.

A small reminder that nature exists: Introducing just a few plants to your room or office space can help activate some of the same kinds of stress relief mechanisms that are triggered when we’re outdoors and in close proximity to nature. Exposure to nature and green spaces have long been linked to stress relief. Some studies have even shown that brief exposure to green spaces can lead to significant improvements in our attention and cognition. The idea behind owning indoor plants and flowers, especially when access to the outdoors (and here in Egypt, to public green spaces) is limited, helps recreate some of these therapeutic benefits on a smaller scale.

This is especially helpful when we’re spending a lot of time indoors: In our increasingly urban and tech-driven world, the amount of time we spend indoors is striking. According to an oft-cited statistic, in some parts of the world people can spend up to 85% of their lives indoors — and that was well before lockdowns and WFH ever became part of the fabric of daily life.

During lockdowns plants offered people much needed relief: In a 2021 study that polled some 4.2k mostly urban-dwellers around the world about coping with stress during covid, some 88% of plant owners attributed emotional benefits and an improved outlook on the pandemic to the presence of their plants. In contrast, those without any plants reported experiencing negative emotions more frequently than those who did.

And why might that be the case? There are several explanations for this. One study suggests that natural environments can reduce depressive symptoms in people by some 20-30%. But one of the most recurring findings in the academic literature is of a link between green spaces and stress relief.

Want some more practical benefits to indoor plants? How about creativity: In one report (pdf) into the benefits of biophilic design, people working in spaces that contain natural elements like daylight and live plants reported creativity levels some 15% higher than those who did not have access to any kind of natural stimulation. A separate study (pdf) has also linked young professionals’ access to nature and landscape plants in particular to increased creativity.

Just don’t expect them to give you cleaner air: Yes, like other plants, house plants suck up carbon dioxide and release oxygen back out into the air and it is true that some may be better at purifying the air of certain toxins than others. But the problem is that the effect a few plants in your home will have on air quality is negligible, despite what previous studies might have indicated. This is because most studies in the past have observed air purifying qualities of plants in strict laboratory conditions rather than apartments where windows, furniture and unsealed spaces interfere with the process. More importantly, for any meaningful air purification to take place you would need an exorbitant amount of plants (about 10 plants per square foot) —- which is a little unrealistic, even for the most committed “plant parent” out there.

PLANT HEALTH

How to keep your plants alive: If you’re sold on adding some plants to your home (or office) there are a few general guidelines to keep in mind.

Sunlight is key: You need to be aware of the amount of sunlight entering your space and just how much each of your plants require. Some of the most common house plants (excluding cacti) typically need indirect light — that includes snake plants, pothos (or devil’s ivy), Chinese evergreens and peace lillies.

Then you need to consider how much you water your plants: This might seem counterintuitive but most people tend to over water their plants. Generally speaking, common indoor plants should be watered once or twice a week and just enough to keep the soil moist, not soaking wet. But this will depend on the plant. Cacti, for example, should only be watered when the soil is close to being bone-dry.

Pay attention to your potting soil: Every plant will require a slightly different potting mix, ranging from fast-draining soil to something a little more sandy. For this you will likely need to check out the exact specifications for each of your plants. Many cacti varieties for example prefer a more sandy mixture. Adding fertilizer (which you can make at home if you compost your food scraps ahead of time) once a month will help promote healthier growth.

If you succeed in not killing your plant, you’ll need to get your hands dirty: Repotting your plant once it has sufficiently outgrown its original pot will become crucial to keeping it alive and growing over the long term. You’ll be able to tell when the roots have grown too long if the soil dries out more quickly than usual or if the roots start to stick out of the drainage holes at the bottom of the pot. But if you want to keep your plant a certain size or buy a new pot, you can go ahead and prune the roots.

For the newbies: Start out with plants that are tough to kill like an aloe, spider, snake, bamboo, cast iron, devil’s ivy or rubber tree plant.

If you’d rather keep your domestic plants outside in a balcony or on a roof, a lush, colorful Bougainvillea never misses. They grow super fast, like loads of sun and are pretty easy to maintain too. Fragrant Arabian jasmine plants work well on balconies as well. They prefer loose loamy soil which is halfway between sand and soil in its level of water retention.

Maybe try out a little herb garden: Growing herbs is another good way to start familiarizing yourself with the world of home botany. They’re fairly low maintenance and do well with lots of sunlight — which we’re in no short supply of here — and they grow equally well indoors and out. You can start off by trying oregano, basil, dill and rosemary from seed. They don't really require any special kind of soil or fertilizer to grow but planting them in a slightly porous mixture of sand and soil works well.

BUY PLANTS

Buying plants in Cairo has in recent years become easier than ever: Once you’ve determined what you’re looking to add to your home (or even if you’re undecided and still looking to browse) there are tons of options for buying house plants in the city now. From online sites with home delivery services to traditional outlets, here’s a look at some of the options that can help get you on your way.

If you’re looking for convenience: Check out sites like Mashtal or Nabat. Both boast extensive lists of indoor and outdoor plants — everything from herbs, fruit trees, cacti and decorative plants to outdoor landscaping solutions and consultations — and deliver to most locations in Cairo. You can also get your gardening essentials like potting soil, fertilizer and shears from them. BONUS: Mashtal has a few guides that might help you navigate their site and decide on the most appropriate plants for your space.

Choosing a more artisanal route: If you’re just starting out and looking to cultivate a more fashionable arboretum inside your home, you might want to check out Plant Cult, who’s primary ambition is to “introduce Hard to Kill plants to complete beginners.” You’ll be able to buy some of the toughest indoor plant species, potted in a variety of colorful and decorative pots, from their site. They do safely packaged home deliveries as well.

Instagram sellers worth checking out: Pages like Greenology, GreenPro and Planty also sell a number of nicely potted house plants that come delivered directly to your doorstep. Some of their plant offerings are a bit larger in size and a little more difficult to take care of than what Plant Cult has to offer, but they also have cheaper options. Shoot them a DM on Instagram or Whatsapp to get the ball rolling.

A little more on the gardening side of things: You’ll find a good selection of vegetable seeds and soil at places like ZeroChemia in Maadi.

And of course, if you want to avoid your journey into plant parenthood being mediated by a screen, visit an actual mashtal: If you’re a resident of the Republic of Maadi, you’re no stranger to the long stretch of plant nurseries lining both sides of the train tracks on Road 250. Pop your head into any section and take a look at some of the plants on display for yourself. You might find ceramic pots available at some of the nurseries but they’re typically not great. Bring some newspaper or a plastic bag to line the bottom of the plastic container your plant is likely potted in to avoid soil getting everywhere on your way home. Elsewhere around the city, keep an eye out for plant nurseries and small-scale sellers on quiet streets and roundabouts.

YOUR TOP 5

Your top 5 pieces of business and economic news in February:

PLANT TECH

Green tech at your fingertips: As is the case with almost any hobby these days, you can enlist the help of technology to support your indoor gardening ambitions. Here’s a round up of what might be useful around the web — from apps to gadgets — to help guide you through everything home botany.

If you’re not into getting your hands dirty every few days to check for moisture, there are apps to help you keep track of watering schedules for each of your plants.

Planta is a no-cost app that sends push notifications that tell you when you need to water your plants. You can pay for a premium version which has way more to offer than basic watering schedules — if you’re willing to dish out USD 35 a year you’ll get loads of helpful tips for longer term plant care.

There’s also Gardenia, which you can use to set up reminders for all the basics: Watering, repotting, applying pesticides and pruning. There’s a manual reminder option on the app as well.

Measure light intensity with your camera: Florish serves much the same function as the basic version of Planta and Gardenia but includes a light meter that helps you measure the amount of sunlight entering different parts of your home through your camera. The app can recommend plants for different parts of your home based on that reading.

If you want to get a bit more academic about it, there’s Blossom: In addition to some of the basic reminder functions available in most other plant apps, Blossom can help identify plant species through photo uploads. The app contains important information to help you care for over 10k plant species.

There are also a bunch of handy physical gadgets you can take advantage of, like the homegrown self-watering device Clayola. Similar to how most other self-watering systems function, the Clayola is designed to automatically transfer moisture from a standing water source to the soil where your plants are potted, so you don’t have to worry about them dying while you’re off on break. What’s unique about the Clayola is that it is entirely constructed from clay and can feed multiple plants using the same water source when hooked up to other clayolas using a thin hose.

PLANT TALK, PLANT WALK

Are you a member of the lonely gardeners club? If you’re struggling to meet fellow plant enthusiasts who will lavish praise on your darling Monstera Deliciosa, there are plenty of online forums you can turn to. Take a peek over at the r/Gardening and r/PlantClinic subReddits for useful information like how to care for your sickly plants and DIY tricks for growing vegetables. Head over to r/Houseplants subReddit if you’re looking to share and indulge in some pretty pictures of indoor plants.

Looking for like-minded Egyptians? You can get involved in a number of Facebook groups — Cairo Plant Lovers and Organic Egypt, for example — if you’re interested in discussing plantcare tips and tricks that are more specifically tailored to Cairene challenges.

If you’re looking for some inspiration and are down to leave your house to find it, check out the Mazhar Botanical Garden, just off the 26th of July Corridor in Giza. The privately-owned garden belonging to architect Shehab Mazhar is home to over 3k unique plant species from around the world. Guided tours are available from time to time.

If you’re heading a little further south: Check out the lush beauty of the Aswan Botanical Garden, situated on Nabatat island, which was known as Kitchener’s Island in the late 19th century. It has since become home to hundreds of species of plants, and 25 distinct palm tree varieties.

Also worth checking out this month: Orman Botanical Garden’s annual Spring Flower Festival is up and running in Dokki through the end of March. Don't be dissuaded by the name: the festival typically has loads of plants for sale, including lots of rare and hard to find varieties you won’t find at nurseries during the rest of the year.

PLANTS IN THEIR NATURAL HABITATS

Want to see plants but don’t want to raise them? Get outdoors. Egypt might be better known for its long coastlines, farmland and barren deserts but it is also home to tons of unique plant species in various enclaves around the country.

The desert is greener than you think: The St. Katherine Natural Protectorate in South Sinai hosts over 1k plant species and comprises 40% of the total plant biodiversity in the country. Not only that but half of the 30+ plant species unique to the Sinai peninsula are located here. Among these are plants like the dwarf shrub Artemesia, the pistachio shrub, the Sinai primrose, and the Rosa Arabica. The Rubus Sanctus — commonly referred to as the Holy Bramble — is among those particularly appreciated by monks at the monastery.

Watch your step: It’s also fairly common to come across a number of desert variety herbs like horsemint (or habaq), oregano, sorrel wood, thyme and baathran or small flowers like Glebionis coronaria (or the crown daisy) and sakraan. It’s also worth noting that over half of these recorded plant species in the area have some kind of medicinal or aromatic benefit (pdf). If you’re thinking about heading out there to explore for yourself, be mindful of the fact that many of these plant species are coming under increasing threat (pdf) from trampling and tourist activity.

Closer inland you'll see some of the more characteristic plants of the region: Irrigation canals and ditches near the Nile support 100 species of grasses including bamboo and halfa. Reeds like the Arundo Donax and Phragmites Australis (Common Reed) as well as the date palm are also extremely common by the Nile in the Delta region.

Further south in Aswan and in much of the Red Sea governorate several species of acacia dominate. In Aswan there are some five distinct species of acacia as well as tamarisk and henna plants. In the southern portion of the Red Sea governorate desert vegetation like tamarisk plants and mangroves are hugely popular. The Avicenna Marina (or the grey or white mangrove) is one of the most common of the 55 mangrove species in the region. Tamarix Aphylla and Tamarix Nilotica are some of the most abundant of the Tamarisk family. Shrubs like Salvadora Persica (or the toothbrush tree), the Zilla Spinosa and Pulicaria Crispa are also very common. Inside the wadis of the Eastern Desert is where you’ll typically find larger plants like the Acacia Tortilis (pdf) and Balanites Aegyptiaca (also known as the Egyptian balsam or desert date). Though they don’t get much rainfall year round, these desert dwellers soak up much of their fuel during the rainy season in October/November to maintain their survival year round.

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