Abu Dhabi-based life science writer Kiran Kannan talks about his new-found interest in self-sustainable terrariums

With his strong foundation in biology and science as a backing, Kannan decided to create similar tropical terrariums

A social media post may have inspired Kiran Kannan to create terrariums, but a visit to the life science writer’s house is proof that it is more than mere curiosity that drives his new-found interest. It was during the lockdown that the avid nature-lover stumbled upon a post about the world’s oldest terrarium. Owned by David Latimer, the 60-year-old self-sustaining ecosystem required nothing but sunlight to thrive.

With his strong foundation in biology and science as a backing, Kannan decided to create similar tropical terrariums. The Abu Dhabi-based writer’s house is currently brimming with display-worthy terrariums. 

“I love exploring nature and understanding biophilia. Our connection to nature is a remnant of our ancient instincts,” he says.

Sourcing the right type of flora, however, was a challenge. “Living in Abu Dhabi, where vegetation is limited and activities like trekking and hiking confined to the winter season, does not offer a favourable environment to pursue this interest,” he explains.

Initially, he tried creating terrariums using the plants in his local area, succulents like Jade plant, Haworthia and cacti. It failed as the high humidity in the jar caused the roots to rot. Later he scoured through the lower strata of tropical forests to collect wild plants that thrive in humid environments such as ferns, mosses, creepers, vines and even carnivorous plants.

The terrariums were made by creating a layer of draining material like gravel, pebbles, a layer of charcoal to absorb odours and excess humidity and then topped with gardening soil. The plants are placed carefully using surgical forceps with in-built lighting for precision. The terrarium is misted and closed using a glass lid. Kannan prefers artificial lighting as the sunlight is harsh in Abu Dhabi. The system takes around four months to stabilise. 

The fern fronds come in different shapes, from a single heart-shaped lamina to frilled, filigree, bristled shaped, and delicate lacy forms creating harmony. Vines like aluminium plants wander over the soil, and the walls of the jar provide texture and add to the vitality. Mosses lend a sublime touch with its lush, carpet-like foliage.

Kannan occasionally adds display props––stones, dead branches to highlight the plants and create a connection to the natural terrain. With the lighting passing through the jars, you have mystique forests in glass jars in an apartment in the desert.

He views the terrariums as miniature versions of the biosphere offering visually pleasing ways to learn about nature. “To appreciate plants, you must understand the role of the elements of nature. For instance, you can view the water cycle and precipitation. The water that evaporates from the soil and foliage condenses around the glass as droplets, just like the rain cycle. A self-sustaining, win-win situation,” he adds.

Sourcing tropical plants into Abu Dhabi remains the primary challenge. The jars where the plants are housed are also expensive. Kannan now sells the terrariums that require minimal or zero maintenance, to make up for the cost involved. His customers are mainly city-dwelt, renters, and millennials, the ones who are aware of the benefits of the primal desire to connect with nature.

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