Tags: creative director
I have been a sucker for succulents for some time now. I still remember the terrarium my mom had decorated in our living room. It seemed awkward to me back then – especially the fact that you could actually break these leaves and all this liquid would come off them. Guilty as charged – I ripped this thing apart. But somehow the hipster pinterest wave sent succulent messages through my computer screen again and again, and so I found myself appreciating these strange looking plants that required little to no care. They seem to suit Dubai climate just fine I guess.
Renee is the master of the succulents here in Dubai and a personal role model for me. She just set off doing what she loves, making her hobby her 9 to 5 and this has taken her upon the most exciting of journeys. Sweet and elegant, she showed me around her apartment on the Palm, where worlds collide – meaning African zebra skin meets Australian succulent species and overcame her camera shyness to pose for me in between her succulent paradise.
Hi Renee! Nice place you’ve got here. Is that a real Zebra skin?
It is a real Zebra skin! It was a present for my partner Matthew from his boss. I wasn’t very keen on it at first but now he is a cherished part of our home. He is our pet called Zippy so it does feel a bit weird to vacuum his mane and tail…
How about this giant fish painting?
The giant Lion fish painting is one of my most cherished possessions. It was painted for me 4 or 5 years ago by my grandmother who is a very talented artist. I only recently brought it to live with me in Dubai as I was waiting for a safe enough place for it. It’s priceless to me, and I’m sure it will remain a treasured part of my life forever.
You are from Australia, have travelled the world and are currently based in Dubai. Where is home for you?
My home is very much Dubai, I couldn’t imagine anywhere else for now. I moved to Dubai when I was 21 so have basically spent all my adult life here. I have a huge network of friends in Dubai including my closest group of girlfriends (lifesavers!) I do come from a very close-knit family, which is still hard to be away from after 8 years, but we talk everyday so it’s manageable, but there will never be a replacement for my mum’s house.
I have always loved succulents! How did you decide to turn your hobby / love into a full time job?
I was inspired and mentored by our family friend, Bradd Farrell and when I first saw his backyard full of luscious and exotic hybrid succulent plant-varieties I was in total rapture! He taught me about the science and process that involves propagating and growing the succulents and I was fascinated and had an unnatural appetite to acquire as many species as possible for my own fascination and amusement. I observed them growing very successfully in Dubai’s desert climate which is ideal for hardy succulents. They then grew into the hundreds! Their growth was so successful and I realised I had so many rare varieties that I started an Instagram account just for my succulents and the different ways I had potted them. This was the birth of Gifts of Life. The overwhelming feedback from that lead to a Facebook page which in turn lead me to setting up Gifts of Life at the Ripe Markets with celebrated sell-out weeks! I am now offering my bespoke succulents as customized orders, wedding favors, event favors, baby shower favors, interior design and architectural exhibitions, so it’s pretty much a full-time job. I still do the odd freelance-flying job though, on private aircrafts for royalties and VVIP dignitaries, which has always been my profession, but I’m not sure how much longer I can keep it up as Gifts of Life is expanding so rapidly! It’s funny how the smallest idea can simply erupt into something fulfilling.
Where can I find the best succulents globally?
I believe the best succulents are where they are found natively. South Africa in my opinion is a leader for native succulents and stunning hybrid varieties. I have also found jaw-dropping nurseries in Arizona, California, and Oregon. I would still say Bradd Farrell’s (@thesucculentguy) backyard in Ballina, Australia is noteworthy on that list of specie collections.
Do they really act as cactuses? They need little water and lots of sun? Does the Dubai weather do them any good?
Yes exactly! Succulents have a hardy constitution that survives best on trace amounts of water. They originate from a desert environment so they have evolved for survival to retain all water in their chubby formations so most of them only need to be watered every 2 weeks, once the surrounding soil is completely dry. The climate in Dubai is ideal!
How does it feel to kick start your own thing? What are the challenges you’ve faced?
Yes it definitely is satisfying, but it has moved so quickly there hasn’t been much time to catch my breath. Sadly in December I lost one of the greatest loves of my life, when my grandfather unexpectedly passed away. He always asked me when I was going to stop flying around the world like a “gypsy” – an idea he never liked. I launched Gifts of Life directly after I returned to Dubai from his funeral and at the time the two situations were completely unrelated. I can now say that Gifts of Life for me is saturated by my grandfather’s presence. I’m sure he would be beaming with pride that I was working from home and doing something so down-to-earth, branded by me, in a company I have created, that operates so ethically. Throughout their marriage, my grandfather built many greenhouses for my grandmother’s precious plants so I’m sure he would love what I am achieving. My main challenges without a doubt would be supply! After massive weeks at the Ripe Markets and large private and corporate orders my precious succulents are depleted, so I now import from Australia. I will always grow as much as possible myself though, as some of my specie collection can’t be found elsewhere.
What are the pros and cons of your job right now?
The pro, is watching the stunning simplicity of my succulents grow, it’s Mother Nature at her finest. The con, is the painstaking time of literally watching the plants grow.
A typical day for you would be?
I wake up early and go straight onto my balcony and inspect all my plants whilst drinking (too) many coffees. This can take an hour or so, then I go to the gym or to the palm running track. The rest of my day is planting orders and now I also seem to be busy with meetings almost every day about developing Gifts of Life. It is bringing me a lot of joy to have this delicious existence working from home.
Which would be the most rear kind of succulent?
At the moment I am looking for a Sedeveria-specie called “Sorrento”. It’s a stunning orangey/red and blushes a deeper colour in the sun. Its formation is very symmetrical and flower-like. I am trying to get my paws on it. But there are so many it would be hard to say what the rarest is, I can just say what I am chasing, and I’m sure there will always be something.
Where can I find your plants?
You can find Gifts of Life every Friday down at Ripe Markets in Zabeel park and Saturdays in Barsha park, Ripe night market. I sell a lot of my succulent treasures off my Instagram, people see the image of what they want exactly and then email me an order or ask for specific customization. I really enjoy doing bespoke customized orders. I have just started doing private viewings at home of my succulent collection for purchasing. I am very selective about which clients I offer this too.