Grads on the Go – Scouring the Desert for Plant Life

BLA grad works to develop a botanic garden in Oman

Andrew Anderson in Oman

On 420 hectares of protected arid landscape, surrounded by starkly beautiful mountains whose ochre colours fade into the horizon, a unique botanic garden is being developed in the Sultanate of Oman. It is a globally significant and intensely challenging project that will present the native plant species of Oman as vegetation communities, showcased together in their natural habitats.

There’s only one catch: no one has ever tried to grow these plants before, let alone design and build a science-based botanic garden that presents both the natural and cultural heritage of Oman.

“Because of its geomorphology, Oman has dramatically distinct and diverse ecosystems,” explains U of G grad Andrew Anderson. He’s the senior landscape architect on the project. “There are more than 1,200 native plant species, many of which are unique to Oman. This is the only place on Earth where the plants of Asia mingle with the plants of Africa. It is globally significant, and our project is making a tangible contribution to the conservation of the biodiversity of this unknown corner of the world.”

Oman probably is unknown to most people, yet this country on the southeast edge of the Arabian Peninsula is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on Earth. Its diverse landscapes range from high-altitude mountains in the north, across the Strait of Hormuz from Iran, to the classic and seemingly endless sand dunes that drift undefined into Saudi Arabia, to a globally distinct subtropical seasonal cloud forest. The latter is home to many rare plant species that occur nowhere else on the planet; this is where the fabled frankincense tree (Boswellia sacra) is found.

Most of the plants that will be on display in the botanic garden, either in natural vegetation communities or in designed amenity planting areas, have never been grown commercially or used in planting designs. The botanic garden team includes botanists, horticulturalists, ethnobotanists and landscape architect Anderson. They are discovering Oman’s rare plants in their native habitats, collecting seeds, documenting conditions in the wild, and experimenting with how to grow the seeds and keep the plants alive. A sprawling nursery, seed bank and herbarium complex was built on the site in 2008. Today, the collection exceeds 100,000 native plants and is the largest collection of native Arabian plants in the world.

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Anderson joined the project early in 2011. He accompanies his Omani colleagues on field expeditions, scouring some of the most remote areas on Earth to locate unique plants and document the existing landscapes and habitat conditions. “We’ll be camping for days and days on the mountains, or in the deserts, or in the cloud forest, sleeping outside under the Arabian stars. While the others are collecting seeds and tracking environmental conditions, I get to look at the landscape to document how it influences the plant communities, so I can translate that into the habitats we’ll be creating at the garden.”

Along the way, he’s developed a deep appreciation for the country that has been his home for over two years now.

“Oman is one of the world’s hidden jewels,” says Anderson. “It is unforgettably beautiful. In the heat of the summer – when temperatures across Arabia soar into the 50s C – the cloud forest of southern Oman is drenched by monsoon rains and shrouded in fog for three months. One of the world’s driest regions turns green almost overnight. It is home to leopards and orchids and everything in between.” It is also where Anderson conducted field research for his master’s degree, exploring connections between the traditional ecological knowledge of the indigenous Jibbali people and landscape conservation in the face of modern threats to biodiversity.

“Everyday life here is unpredictable almost hour by hour,” Anderson says, “but there is a very tangible respect and pride that the Omani people have for their distinct culture, which has evolved over millennia at the crossroads of the world between Africa, Asia and Europe. Omani hospitality is second to none.”

Muscat, the country’s capital and home of the Oman Botanic Garden, is one of the world’s hottest capital cities. That’s a big change for Anderson, who grew up in Ottawa, the world’s coldest capital, and studied in Dublin, Ireland, which he suspects should be in the running for the world’s dampest city.

Anderson knew he wanted to be a landscape architect since the day he wandered into his high school guidance office and found a copy of the University of Guelph calendar. He’d never heard of landscape architecture, but when he read the description in the calendar, he knew it was what he wanted to do. He’s never looked back.

He also knew that U of G was where he wanted to study, because of the international reputation of the landscape architecture program. He adds that an excellent exchange program took him to Norway in his fourth year.

After graduating with a BLA in 1997, Anderson worked for several landscape architecture firms, contributing to projects in Canada and around the world. “I was always interested in the intersection between design and ecology.” he says. “Over time I also became interested in how these link to cultural heritage.”

That led him back to school in Dublin in 2009, where he became the first landscape architect to obtain a UNESCO Master of Science in World Heritage Management. “Landscape architecture was the perfect foundation for this inherently multi-disciplinary specialization,” Anderson says. “We were all mature students from around the world with extremely diverse professional backgrounds – everything from law to wildlife biology and art therapy – whose paths converged in Dublin to explore our shared passion for natural and cultural heritage.

“The experience changed the course of my life,” he says. “It confirmed that I wanted to use the skills of landscape architecture to celebrate and protect the world’s special places.”

When he heard about the project in Oman, he admits he wasn’t entirely sure where the country was. Now it’s home. “It is amazing how quickly you can adapt to a completely foreign way of life. It’s been a total cultural immersion, exactly what I wanted.”

He considers himself fortunate to work with a large team of Omani colleagues who are eager to share their culture, show off their beautiful country and quiz him after his Arabic lessons.

Anderson says he is in no hurry to leave, but recognizes that part of his role is capacity-building so that his responsibilities can eventually be transitioned to Omani experts.

“I have always loved learning and teaching others, so I am enjoying that aspect,” he says. “I am fiercely proud of being a landscape architect, and it is very rewarding to be following an untraditional route in my career. My team is working on a project that is tangibly doing something good and important. And I feel very strongly that the education I received at the University of Guelph set the foundation for every aspect of my life. It just opened up the entire world for me, and now I’m learning just how diverse that world is.”