Tucked away in a quiet street in Għaxaq is a treasure which Renè Zahra has nurtured for the past 60 years. Grown from tiny seeds or cuttings, around 5,000 species of succulents and cacti, originating from all corners of the globe, grace the former teacher’s yard and roof.
These plants grew up with me, I have grown to know their needs and behaviour
Inspired by a garden in Egypt, where his family had moved during World War II, Mr Zahra’s love for plants grew when his father gave him some succulent ones at the tender age of nine.
In 1964 he joined the Cactus and Succulent Society of Malta, 13 years after it was founded. He was soon elected as secretary of the society, which is one of the oldest Maltese NGOs. Mr Zahra’s botanical hobby has over the years transformed into a conservational role.
Since the very beginning, he started contacting others who like him were interested in succulents, especially in South America, Africa, the UK and Germany. Scared of airplanes, he travelled overland to the UK in 1973 to meet attendees of a cactus and succulent congress at the University of Reading, where he joined the International Organisation for the study of Succulent plants.
Mr Zahra’s love for succulents took him on a never-ending journey of learning which saw him sit for botany and geography A level exams, write papers for European, American and South African audiences and even have his work translated in Russian. He has just finished writing the only book in Maltese on cactus, Kakti u Sukkulenti Oħra.
Malta’s national plant, widnet il-baħar, is a succulent, while the ġiżi ta’ Malta, growing around Dwejra in Gozo, is also transforming into a succulent. However, plants which are new to Malta are still discovered from time to time.
Mr Zahra said seeds were sometimes brought over to the island by birds or the wind. Others were brought over by colonialists, like the prickly pear plants which originated in Mexico but which were endorsed by the Maltese landscape after 1492 during the Knights’ reign.
Mr Zahra, now 73, grew his 5,000 different species from seeds. He insists succulents are easily grown from seeds and cuttings and the removal of plants from their natural habitat is unnecessary and unfavourable.
His “haven” flourishes with plants from across the globe, including Madagascar, Somalia, Argentina, Peru and Brazil. In his greenhouses he controls hibernation and has at times even pollinated his plants by hand if the plant’s natural pollinator is inexistent in Malta.
“These plants grew up with me, I have grown to know their needs and behaviour,” he says, looking fondly at the specimens carpeting his yard.
Mr Zahra’s succulent and cacti collection varies in colour, size, and shape, and some of them are rare in their own natural habitat. He smiles, holding a 50-year-old plant on his palm, merely 20 centimetres wide and tall.
“This is part of heaven for me and I want to share this heritage with others,” he adds, pointing to a newly-found plant, with as yet an unknown botanical name, and which he is observing in collaboration with a German colleague.
Mr Zahra and other Maltese botanical enthusiasts have even developed a unique method with which to grow plants that are difficult to breed from seeds in their own natural habitat abroad.
An exhibition of cacti and other succulent plants, organised by the Cactus and Succulent Society of Malta will be held at the Victoria Hall, Oratory Street, Naxxar on Saturday and Sunday between 8.30 a.m. and 7.30 p.m. Entrance is free. Parking space will be available and there will be a sale of surplus of members’ plants.
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