Noshin Sarfraz was just 18 years old when she got married and moved into her in-law’s grand colonial house on Empress Road in Lahore. Her Mother-in-law Zohra Begum, 75 year-old widow of chief secretary N. M. Khan, didn’t keep well. Within three months of the wedding, she presented her teenaged daughter-in-law a heavy necklace of keys, handing over the responsibility of maintaining the house and surrounding gardens. Noshin Auntie promptly shut herself in a room and cried. Coming from a family of educated women, (one paternal Aunt Shamshad Majidullah was among the first women ever to graduate from Cambridge with a tri-pos degree in Mathematics in the late 1950’s while another paternal Aunt, Dr. Nishat Masood was a practicing gynecologist), she always saw herself more as an academic than a housewife. She had topped her FA degree in economics. Her father repeatedly assured her that he’d send her to his alma mater, Oxford, to study. And yet, through some quirk of fate, she instead found herself married at eighteen with a new family to care for and an entire estate to run. And with it, so many keys to keep track of!
Coming from a family of plant-lovers, Noshin Auntie took an immediate interest in the garden. She fondly remembers how her late-father, who retired as a senior executive in the automotive industry, organised flower shows wherever they were posted. Their family home in Murree boasted a stunning garden for as long as she can remember. Her mother-in-law never interfered in her gardening – at most, she would remind Noshin Auntie to water the citrus trees brought over from what was then East Pakistan on hot days. In fact, she regularly highlighted her daughter-in-law’s achievements in the garden among friends and family. Zohra Begum must have realised early on that the real key to Noshin Auntie’s contentment lay in encouraging her to lay down her own roots in the soil.
Noshin Sarfraz has become one of the most dynamic and innovative horticulturists of Pakistan
Noshin Auntie has since become one of the most dynamic and innovative horticulturists of Pakistan. She has completed numerous courses and degrees from institutions all over the world including U Penn, California Polytechnic Institute, a controlled environment short course in Holland, a floral and foliage arrangement workshop in Germany with master Gregor Lersche to name a few. She hosted a show on PTV on gardening for many years, sharing her expertise with the rest of the country. She has also contributed articles to leading Pakistani newspapers on gardening and history, including serving as a columnist for The Nation for over a year. She started an interior landscaping business called FloraCare almost 25 years ago that continues to provide healthy indoor plants to a host of corporate clients. She is also the President of the Amateur Gardening Club of Lahore, which boasts a large and committed following of plant-lovers. As a garden consultant, she serves institutional clients including LUMS, where her work has been so thoroughly appreciated that she has just been awarded the contract to design the landscape of the entire campus. Noshin Auntie also worked with the Punjab government some years back to find the optimal plant to adorn Lahore’s Historic Mall road. Due to the shade cast by the mighty Peepul trees lining the Mall, most plants would die out, leaving Lahore’s most iconic thoroughfare looking shabby for most of the year. Noshin Auntie recommended day-lilies. Despite facing initial resistance, she explained that day-lilies would thrive in partial shade, provide attractive foliage beyond the flowering season, and would self-propagate year after year, eliminating the need to replant. Once the tubers were allowed to take root, the results were spectacular. Day-lilies on the Mall have since become synonymous with spring in Lahore.
At a floral art show in Dubai eight years ago, Noshin Auntie came across literature on sustainable gardening that deepened her work. Learning about the benefits of using organic mediums and the danger posed by commercial pesticides and fertilizer, she began experimenting with local materials. She found that coconut peat, the husky outer skin of the coconut fruit, (which is a ubiquitous waste product in Pakistan), is an ideal seed starter. She has since conducted workshops at her gardening club in order to popularise the practice. She also discovered that organic waste from the rice processing industry – rice ash – is an ideal fertiliser and pest repellent. The potash-rich powder nourishes and aerates soil while its texture repels slugs and snails. Noshin Auntie has been mixing her own soil for many years now – creating individual batches for each section of her garden based on the requirements of each planting. Her commitment to sustainability is so thorough that even the tea-leaves at the bottom of her teapot are immediately added to the potted flowers lining her patio!
The Persianate and Mughal empires were in fact the sources for the tulips and irises that the Europeans later cultivated
Noshin Auntie has also delved into botanical study to deepen our understanding of history. On a trip to the historic Wazir Khan Masjid in Lahore’s old city some years ago, she was amazed to note that the frescoes and tile mosaics adorning the 1635 mosque show perfect illustrations of what are commonly known to be European flowers and designs. How did the artisans of Lahore in the 1600’s manage to capture lily, iris, tulip, bearded iris, fritilaria imperialis, daisy, dianthus, hydrangea in such precise detail? Her questions lead her to discussions with growers in Holland who explained that the Persianate and Mughal empires of South and Central Asia were in fact the sources for the tulips and irises that the Europeans later cultivated on their land. Additionally, techniques of floral arrangement that are taught in Western curricula as French, as in the mille-fleur (thousand flower) arrangement, existed in the same period in Mughal India. Through her deep love and respect for flora and its connection to heritage architecture, Noshin Auntie has uncovered fascinating historical facts that are regrettably missing in our textbooks.
Those of us who have had the privilege of visiting her magnificent garden in Spring have experienced first-hand the fantastic world she has created: Varieties that normally grow to heights of two feet tower over you, flowering perennials that customarily blossom once a season make encore appearances, flowers whose blooms ordinarily measure four inches surge to almost double their normal size. Is it the coconut husks that she starts her seeds in? Or the rice ash that she mixes into the planting bed with her lily tubers and amaryllis bulbs? It could be the tea leaves. Or the fact that she spends two hours every morning and every afternoon watering the plants herself? Or perhaps it is the intellectual rigor and scientific inquiry that underpins her gardening practice? All these factors surely contribute to the astonishing beauty of her garden, but what one feels most overwhelmingly in Noshin Auntie’s garden is her perpetual sense of wonder.