A.K. Khan with his grandchildren

From planting seeds, shrubs, flowers and trees to taking care of them through watering, trimming, weeding and maintaining the quality of the soil, a gardener’s job is never done. Abdul Karim or A.K. Khan, too, is doing all he can to keep his plants and dreams green and alive.

Everyone in A.K. Khan’s house is born with green fingers and green thumbs. Their family history can be traced back to his forefathers who migrated from Kabul, Afghanistan, to settle in Amer in the northwest of India. Landscaping and maintaining Mughal gardens was their family business.

Born on June 1, 1920, A.K. Khan as a child enjoyed visiting the various gardens in India along with attending the annual flower shows organised by the British during spring. “I have always carried a great love for plants and have never separated myself from them,” says Khan Sahab, who is 91 years old today and still very much involved in horticulture.

“We are after all the children of Adam and Eve, who were thrown out of the Garden of Eden. All our life we strive to do good in this world in the hope of reaching that garden. I have only decided to grow flowery gardens in this world also,” he explains his life’s philosophy.

A.K. Khan’s education, too, was in agriculture. He went to Allahabad to join the Agriculture University there in 1939 from where he completed his BSc honours in Horticulture in 1944. That was also the year he got married besides getting a job.

“My first appointment was as an Agriculture research officer in the Agriculture Department of Kabul,” he informs. “Meanwhile, my father was also working for the Indian government but in the Railways Department,” he adds.

It was in 1947 that the whole family that had come to make Amer their home decided to move once again. “My paternal grandfather, grandmother, four paternal uncles and an aunt decided to settle in Saudi Arabia while my father and myself opted for Pakistan,” he says with pride.

A.K. Khan with then Governor General Khwaja Nazimuddin, Abdus Sattar Pirzada, Education Minister Fazlul Rehman, Sir Harold Shoobert, Sohrab Kharak and Maqsoodur Hasan at the flower show in 1950

“Travel in those days wasn’t easy and going by caravans and ships to Saudi Arabia proved too tiring for my grandfather who died on the way in Yemen, where he is also buried. Meanwhile, my grandmother, four uncles and aunt were able to reach their destination. Today they are settled in Makkah and Medina. They no longer know Urdu or English and only converse in Arabic but recognise their roots and greet us with much love whenever we meet,” Khan Sahab carries on with his family history.

About the path he decided to take, he says: “At that time, I was serving in the Agriculture Wing of the Public Works Department in Delhi. I came to Karachi even before Partition to join the Horticulture Department. Meanwhile, my parents went to Lahore but later on moved down to Karachi after my father’s retirement from the Railways,” he says.

In the year following his arrival in Karachi A.K. Khan formed the Horticultural Society of Pakistan (HSP). “It started from just an idea on my part that was adopted and approved by the then Federal Agriculture Minister, Abdus Sattar Pirzada, and the Federal Agriculture Secretary Government of Pakistan, Sir Harold Shoobert. HSP became the country’s first registered technical body,” he announces.

“Our work was displayed for the first time in 1949 from a stall where we displayed herbs, some medicinal plants and a few flower arrangements done by Rabia Akbar (now Rabia Wahid) during the Islamic Industrial Exhibition at Purani Numaish. It was inaugurated by the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan,” he remembers.

“HSP by this time had some 15 members but we were short on resources as the joining fee was only two annas,” Khan Sahab explains. “Still, we were able to grow thanks to generous help in the form of resources from Karachi Municipality Corporation’s (KMC) horticulturist, S.G. Lanewala. Our first proper Flower Show was held at Gandhi Garden in 1950. The then Governor General of Pakistan, Khawaja Nazimuddin, came to inaugurate it. That was when we were also able to spread much awareness about horticulture among the people here. We found many ladies interested in horticulture and gardening,” he continues.

“Seeing their enthusiasm, we started our first gardening classes for ladies in 1963. HSP is proud to have trained over 8,000 ladies in gardening to date. We also founded the Ladies Horticulture Club in 1964 with some 40 ladies initially, of which my late wife, Safia Khan, was the first member. Begum Daulat Anwer Hidayatullah was the first president of the club, which today is a major supporter of the annual Flower Show as HSP’s other affiliated or allied clubs and societies such as Ikebana International, Amateur Gardeners Club, Floral Art Society, Orchid Society of Pakistan, Pakistan Bonsai Society and Cactus Society of Pakistan,” he provides.

He represented Pakistan at the International Horticulture Congress held in London in 1952 and was also elected member of the International Committee on Horticulture Nomenclature. The same year he went to Scotland for further studies in landscaping.

In 1983 he was elected Honorary Corresponding Member of The Landscape Institute, UK, too, and in 1985 he attended the International Conference on Landscape Planning at Belfast, UK. He has visited a number of horticulture centres, botanical gardens and presented papers in the USA, UK and other parts of the world.

Back home, there would be seminars, workshops, tree plantation drives, vegetable growing campaigns in schools and colleges and free technical advisory services and lectures and A.K. Khan was the driving force behind all of them. He also served as advisor on horticulture to many government and defence establishments such as the Quaid-i-Azam’s Mausoleum Board, Authority for Preservation of Moenjodaro (a Unesco project), Civil Aviation Authority, Defence Housing Authority (DHA) besides helping with the tree plantation for camouflaging sensitive Army, Air Force and Navy establishments.

It wasn’t long before Karachi, a desert city, wore a green look thanks to the guidance from the senior-most horticulturist and landscaper of the country. In 1977, taking early retirement from the KMC, where he was director of horticulture, parks and recreation, A.K. Khan turned his attention to projects in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, etc.

Meanwhile, with over a 1,000 members throughout the country, HSP has also developed a garden centre in DHA where besides offering training in gardening they also introduce rare plants. The year 2011 saw him completing work on a model pilot research project, the A.K. Khan Tissue Culture Laboratory & Horticulture Research Centre.

“The project cost around Rs3.3 million initially. The money for it was provided by my friends and myself although the land was provided to us by DHA. The project has a committee of 12 members formed by HSP under the chairmanship of Lt Gen (Retd) Jehanzeb Arbab with scientific back-up from PCSIR and the Bio-tech Department of the University of Karachi,” he informs.

“And just like we have been spreading awareness about horticulture in Pakistan all along these years, we now aim to attract industrialists to turn horticulture into a major industry in the country. You can make thousands of plants from a single plant tissue. It is potentially a billion-dollar industry that is already serving as a major source of economy in countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, the Netherlands, China, etc.

Recognising his services, the Government of Pakistan honoured him with the Certificate of Merit and Gold Medal in 1962, the Sanad and Pistol in 1964, the Sanad and Revolver in 1966 and several other awards and cash prizes. A.K. Khan was awarded the title of ‘Baba-i-Baghbani Pakistan’ at HSP’s 50th anniversary in 1988. The President’s Pride of Performance followed two years later, in 1990, and in 2010 he was awarded with the Sitara-i-Imtiaz.

Having authored seven books on gardening, he still leads a very active life running the HSP along with his younger son and right-hand man, Salman. Meanwhile, his daughters too are very much into gardening with one running a florist shop in the USA and the others taking up floral stage decorations here.