‘Like gold for ladies’

On my recent visit to Qatar I was intrigued to see that many women seemed to be more heavily veiled than 30 years ago – it seems common now for women to show only their eyes in a ninja-style arrangement of scarves, whereas in the past faces were often visible or a gauzy veil was dropped across the face. Then, a woman wearing gloves was a rarity; now, it’s more common.

On the other hand, I saw many abayas with discreet white detailing – lace or embroidery around the cuffs and hem – and some that were made from something other than shiny, black fabric (still black though), and the occasional one that had been cut in a fashionable way.

Something that hasn’t changed is the use of henna to decorate their hands. And the two or three women I approached to photograph their hands were quite willing so long as that was all I was snapping (ie, not their faces), and seemed to think it a marvellous joke.

The following article is from 1987 – I thought it may be of interest. The older woman who agreed to be interviewed did not want her name used. She didn’t speak English so I relied on a young Qatari woman, who was also my contact for the household.

Henna powder. Photo: Wikimedia

Henna decoration for women, a tradition in Arabia for centuries, is alive and well among Qatari women of all ages. The henna plant (Lawsonia inermis) is a member of the privet family and although the shrub can be found in gardens in Qatar, most women use imported henna powder from India, Pakistan, Sudan (thought to be the best for decoration) or Oman (generally used only on the hair).

In the past Qatari women would have collected the leaves, dried them and then ground the leaves into a powder before going on to prepare a henna paste. The flowers of the henna plant, with their distinctive fresh scent, are popular with Qatari women who like to cut them and have them in their homes.

Henna paste for decoration can be made in two ways. The first method uses crushed, dried lemons steeped in water. This mixture is then boiled. After stirring it up, the henna powder is added.

The paste is usually made in the morning and left covered until the afternoon when a dash of petrol or mahalabiya (an essential oil imported from Sudan that has a pine oil base) is added to help darken the resulting colour and to give a shine when the paste is applied to the skin.

The application of the paste to hands and feet is usually done in the evening and left on until the next morning.

The second method is simply to mix the henna powder with some lemon juice (again, to darken the colour) and water. It is usually estimated that half a packet of henna powder is enough to decorate the hands and feet of one woman.

Traditional Qatari decoration. Photo: Sandra Simpson (2015)

Designs traditional to the Arabian Gulf are simple next to the more elaborate designs preferred by Indian and Pakistani women and which are now [1987] available in a number of beauty salons in Doha.

Gulf women traditionally like small spots on the backs of their hands, henna staining their fingertips and nails, and perhaps a small flower drawn on the palm of their hand. Other variations include a thick bar across the palm, or the palm being completely stained. Feet are usually stained completely on the sole with the top of the toes and nails covered as well.

“Some ladies don’t like to have nail polish, but do like to have their nails coloured,” one Qatari woman explained, “so they use henna. When the Indian women started coming to the Gulf their fancy designs became more popular, but in our countries the designs are usually more simple. Henna is like gold for ladies.”

This woman had elaborate designs on the palms and simpler designs on the backs of her hands. Photo: Sandra Simpson (2015)

The longer henna can be left on, the darker the colour and, certainly among Gulf women, the darker the better.

A woman who plans to apply henna to her feet would do so overnight and would prepare her bed in a special way, with her feet raised off the mattress. The paste would start to dry after about 10 minutes and she could then go to sleep – during the winter months a small heater is often placed near the feet to speed drying.

To stain her palms, a woman would sleep with a wad of paste clutched in her fist – her hands would be tied into a ball with strips of cloth. The next morning the paste is washed off. The resulting staining can last up to a month, depending on the strength of the paste preparation.

Template patterns for sale in Souq Waqif, Doha. Photo: Sandra Simpson (2015)

On the eve of a young woman’s marriage a henna party (ghumra) is held and her friends and relatives will decorate her and each other. The designs are drawn on with matchsticks. Read more about ghumra nights in Saudi tradition.

The henna tradition is passed from mother to daughter among Gulf women, although many of the younger generation prefer to be decorated in beauty salons. These decorations usually last for about a week and are much redder in colour.

Pearl fishermen used henna on their palms to prevent blistering – henna was thought to harden the surface of the skin, heal, nourish and care for it.

Qatari women also often use henna as a colouring and conditioner for their hair. The powder is made into a paste with boiled tea or water and put on the hair for up to 3 hours, then washed off to give rich, dark red highlights.

Elaborate henna work. Photo: Sandra Simpson (2015)

Read more about henna, including patterns, at The Henna Page website.

Postcard from Doha

I’m recently back from a trip to the Arabian Gulf, something of a sentimental journey even though I knew it was likely to be bitter-sweet.

I haven’t been back to Doha, the capital of Qatar, since we left in 1989 so knew there would be plenty of change – especially as in the interim it became the richest country in the world! Just how big those changes have been left me speechless. A few landmarks still exist from my day, but not many. The administration area has moved across to West Bay, where previously the Sheraton Hotel stood in isolated splendour. That building is now dwarfed by skyscrapers, many architecturally distinctive.

Back then, the Vege Grower had to go on ahead of me and get his residency established before I could apply for an entry visa. When I arrived in February 1985 the plane taxied to near the terminal and passengers descended by a set of stairs and walked across the tarmac. My visa paperwork was waiting on a table and I had to shuffle through the pile, find mine and take it to the immigration officer.

Thirty years later we disembarked at a new airport via an airbridge and emerged into a large, modern terminal. We lined up and the young Qatari man simply checked our passports and stamped our visa in, no paperwork needed. We told him the years we had lived in Doha – he was astounded as he had been born in 1994!

Sheikh Khalifa was emir in 1985, his son Sheikh Hamad (who was the heir apparent) took over in 1995 and in turn stepped aside for his son Sheikh Tamim in 2013. Read a list of the emirs here. The reason you may have heard of Qatar is that the country is hosting, amid much controversy, the soccer world cup in 2022. Fifa announced this week that games would be played in November and December to try and have conditions as cool as possible.

I’ll post more about Doha and Qatar over the next little while, but one of the highlights of our trip was a visit to the Museum of Islamic Art, built on reclaimed land beside the Corniche, and designed by I.M Pei (he designed the glass pyramids at The Louvre; I read he was dragged out of retirement for the Doha job). I’m not sure why, but images on the MIA website link above start halfway down my screen.

Here are a few photos of some of the many amazing objects in the museum, these  incorporating plants in the design. Read more about carnations and Iznik pottery here or go to the V&A site for a teachers’ resource: Exploring plant-based design through the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art.

Botanical detail from a long-necked water bottle ca 1570-1580, Iznik pottery, Turkey. Photo: Sandra Simpson

A 17th century cushion cover from Turkey, with a pattern of stylised carnations. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Carnations and other flowers on an Iznik plate. Photo: Sandra Simpson

And, finally, a 20th century piece – calligraphy in gold on a real leaf. The artist wasn’t named, but the art was made in Turkey. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Apple picking time

The Daily Telegraph recently published an interesting gallery of photos of popular British apples. Among the crop were several New Zealand-bred varieties:

  • Jazz, a cross between Gala and Braeburn; Gala (bred 1934), went to England in the 1980s and is now the most common eating apple grown commercially in the UK
  • Braeburn bred in the 1950s, but not grown in England until 40 years later
  • Envy (which I’d not heard of), another Gala-Braeburn cross made in 1985.

Braeburns have their own website and there you’ll find the history of this deliciously tart and juicy apple. The tree was found by a farmer in Waiwhero in 1952 in the apple-growing area around Nelson. It was a seedling cross-pollinating from Granny Smith and Lady Hamilton trees. It was subsequently cultivated at the Braeburn Orchard and thus named.

Clockwise from bottom left ( think I’ve got most of them right): Envy, Braeburn, Fuji, Pacific Rose, Pacific Beauty, Red Delicious, Royal Gala and Jazz. In the centre are Granny Smith (front) and Pink Lady. Photo: Enza

According to the 100% Pure Apples from New Zealand website:

Braeburn: New Zealand’s second-largest variety by volume and one of the world’s premium apple varieties. Harvested late March and April. Sports of Braeburn include Aurora, Eve and Mahana Red.

Pacific Beauty: A natural cross between Gala and Splendour, harvested mid- to late February. Pacific Queen is a cross of Royal Gala and Splendour (mid-March to late April), and Pacific Rose (April).

Royal Gala: New Zealand’s largest variety by volume, was developed in New Zealand and is harvested from late February to late March. Higher colour strains include Galaxy and Brookfield. A red sport of Gala.

Sonya: Developed in New Zealand as a cross between Gala and Red Delicious. Harvested late March, early April.

The Enza Foods website says Royal Gala and Braeburn are grown in the greatest numbers in New Zealand, followed by Fuji (Japan), Jazz (New Zealand’s fastest-growing export, sold in 20 countries), Pacific Rose, Granny Smith (Australia) and Cox’s Orange Pippin (England).

I’m partial to a Pink Lady (sounds like a cocktail, doesn’t it?), an apple that originated in western Australia and is a cross between Golden Delicious and Lady Williams.

Other popular New Zealand-bred apples are:

  • Gala: Developed in New Zealand from Cox’s Orange Pippin and Golden Delicious (late February – late March). Gala has produced many sports, including the popular Royal Gala.
  • Southern Snap: Recently developed, a bright red apple said to have a rich tangy flavour with crisp, juicy flesh (late February – mid-March).

My own apple trees, I hear you ask? I have three trees but only one is bearing fruit – and then only five little, green apples, just beginning to colour up!

Rain garden

It’s raining – proper rain that is soaking the ground and has been falling on an off through the night and this morning. So I thought I would revive the following piece, written in 2009.

The Western Bay of Plenty is renowned for its plenty, including plenty of rain. But how many home gardeners are aware they can help slow and treat the run-off from their property by creating a rain garden?

Tauranga City Council has developed a rain garden at a reserve in Pillan’s Point, although engineering technologist Celia Bowles said it was still at an experimental stage.

“We’re building up our expertise on the design, maintenance and operation of a rain garden,” she said, “but there aren’t any plans yet to put more in.”

Kip Cooper, a civil engineer with Beca, said rain gardens can be useful in private or commercial situations – as well as controlling the volume of water flowing from a property, they can also help control the quality of the water running into Tauranga Harbour by removing contaminants such as zinc (from roofs), copper (from, say, spouting) and sediment.


A green roof and rain garden at Auckland Regional Botanic Gardens. Photo: Sandra Simpson

“If you have a place where you always wash your car, you could allow the run-off to wash through a rain garden before it enters the stormwater system to help remove contaminants,” Kip suggested.

The commercial application of rain gardens sees them positioned beside busy roads and in carparks to filter road and vehicle contaminants from rain water.

“In that situation, you have to choose plants that can cope with heavy metals,” he said, “and reeds are pretty good at that. There are plants that can store the contaminants or break them down.”


The 2008 rain garden by Auckland designer Kirsten Sachs. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Rain gardens can be as elaborate as the one designed by Auckland landscaper Kirsten Sach for the 2007 Ellerslie Flower Show that featured slim-line water tanks hidden in plaster walls, or as simple as the one she designed a year later for the Auckland Flower Show that comprised a downpipe running into a stepped system.

On top was a pond (complete with goldfish and aquatic plants), that overflowed into a box planted with wet and dry-tolerant plants that, when  conditions are right, overflows to a stony bed garden.

The garden won gold  and was created for $6000, including the shed the water ran off.

Kip described a rain garden as a “tier system” in that the water gradually moves through the planting and soil and gravel and is filtered along the way.

“They are great things,” he said, “because one day they’re flooded and the next day they’re dry. You need flora that can cope with that, but it’s an ideal opportunity to vary what you have in your back garden.”


Rain collection by Carl Pickens at the 2009 Ellerslie show. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Landscape designer Carl Pickens showed decorative rain collection in his award-winning 2009 Ellerslie International Flower Show garden. The small bowls acted like a chain in that water ran down the links and finally into the large bowl which then overflowed into the adjacent reed bed.

Further reading:

This article was originally published in the Bay of Plenty Times and appears here with permission. It has been updated slightly.


I’ve always loved passionfruit – despite (or because of?) the pips – and now that our vine is in its second year of production we have had a small glut of fruit.

I found the following recipe in Annabelle White’s 2002 book Seasons: a year of fabulous food and can heartily recommend the cake.

Passionfruit & sour cream cake

Pre-heat the oven to 160degC. Cream 125g of softened butter with 1 cup of sugar. Add 3 lightly beaten eggs and fold in 1 cup of flour with 1 tsp baking powder (I sifted), alternately with half a cup of sour cream. Fold in the pulp of 1-2 passionfruit and bake in a 20cm cake tin (I greased) for 45-55 minutes.

While still warm drizzle the cake with passionfruit pulp.

My cake – made with wholemeal flour which is why it hasn’t risen, but still delicious. Photo: Sandra Simpson

This recipe for easy, no-beat ice-cream came out of the NZ Herald several years ago – you’ll be left with egg whites so there’s a passionfruit pavlova! Note that the ice-cream becomes quite solid and doesn’t scoop. A coconut or vanilla biscuit is nice with it (you can sandwich the ice-cream between biscuits if you’re very clever).

Passionfruit ice-cream

4 egg yolks
half a cup of castor sugar
half a cup of passionfruit pulp and juice
2 cups of cream

Beat the egg yolks until very pale, using a food processor or an electric beater.

In a small saucepan over medium heat dissolve the sugar in the passionfruit and simmer for 3-4 minutes, while stirring. With the beater running pour the hot syrup (carefully, the splashes will burn!) on to the egg yolks and continue to beat until the mixture is cool (I stop at tepid, rather than cool).

Lightly whip the cream and gently, but thoroughly, fold through the passionfruit mixture. Freeze for at least 5 hours.

Some growing tips for passionfruit may be found here.

The dramatic – but complicated looking – passionfruit flower that turns into a black-skinned fruit. Photo: Sandra Simpson