Plants of the Quran flower and bloom at London's Kew Gardens

5 min read
25 April, 2023

Plants of the Qur'ān is a new exhibition which explores plants referenced in the Quran. Travelling to various locations in the Middle East, botanical artist Sue Wickison created a series of illustrated plants including garlic, pomegranate, date palms, henna and flowering desert species.

Speaking about the exhibition, Sue comments: “After six years of researching, sourcing and illustrating the many plants which are described in the Quran, it’s wonderful to be able to celebrate the culmination of this work with this new exhibition. Having worked as a botanical illustrator at Kew Gardens for almost ten years, I’m really thrilled to be showcasing these new paintings in a place which is very special to me, collaborating with Dr Shahina Ghazanfar on this unique project.”

"I hope it [the exhibition] will make people look a little closer at the detail around them every day and appreciate the beauty and fascination in plants we see around us"

Sue first came across botanical art inspired by the Quran at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. “I was intrigued by the marble inlaid botanical motifs all over the floors and columns and I wanted to know what the plants were,” explains Sue. 

“I started to enquire about the plants and whether they were the plants mentioned in the Holy Quran and there seemed to be very little information available.” 

Determined to bring her inspiration to the UK, Sue set to work on what would accumulate over six years of extensive research and travel across the Middle East.  

“A former colleague directed me to Dr Shahina Ghazanfar, a senior botanist at Kew, who had specialised in plants of the Middle East for years,” says Sue. “Little did I know that Shahina was already working on the topic of the Plants of the Qur’ān. This serendipitous introduction led to us working together for several years on this project.”

Plants of the Qur'an by Sue Wickison. (c) RBG Kew.
Plants of the Qur'an by Sue Wickison (c) RBG Kew.

Working together, Dr Ghazanfar and Sue researched, documented, and recorded plants referenced in the Quran, creating 25 new botanical paintings for the exhibition.

They pooled inspiration and resources to work together on the project to research and record in a book and exhibition format the plant species that are mentioned in the Holy Quran. Although there are a number of works written on the topic, none are a comprehensive illustrated collection of the plants.


Highlighting the cultural, agricultural, and botanical significance of a variety of species, the exhibition allows visitors to engage with these often-everyday plants in new ways, exploring their cultural context alongside their role in modern medicine, as food sources and in gardens around the world.

One aspect of the exhibition that makes it so unique is the attention to detail that it brings, although it came with its own set of challenges, as Sue explains, “I worked on such a variety, from the Hammada salicornicum, a tiny desert plant with flowers only a few millimetres across requiring a microscope to see the botanical details, to the majestic date palm with dense inflorescences of hundreds of tiny flowers and beautiful colour variations in the mass of dates. The challenge was to maintain the concentration required for 100s of hours of work required to complete an illustration that measures over 1.2 metres tall.

“I also observed the flower of Hammada, which is just 1mm under a microscope and it opened a whole new world. I painted it at x25 to show the beauty of it.”

For Sue, the exhibition was also a labour of love, which included travelling to remote parts of the Middle East and working closely with a large team of people from across the world:

“Year of travel and work went into the end result for the exhibition and it needed a huge team of people co-ordinated it in different countries from the Middle East, to New Zealand where I live, working with the video maker Sam Leach and New Zealand Micrographics who scanned all the paintings to capture them in the most accurate detail.”

Speaking about her extensive travels Sue adds: “Traveling into the desert areas in the UAE is always exciting for me. There were several trips venturing up into the remote Al Hajar mountains in Oman and seeing how crops have been grown in the same way for generations.

“Seeing the ancient Falaj system of irrigation dating back 2,000 years in some areas was fascinating to see the system of cooperation that still exists today between farmers and villages allowing water on a rotary system to flood through the beautiful pomegranate or date palm groves.

“I learnt how interesting it is to observe other cultures and the way of life and great kindness and interest in the project has always been shown to me."


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Sue adds that the exhibition is an accumulation of research, travel and the people who have contributed along the way: “One positive surprise was the fantastic enthusiasm, response and support I was given by the people I met tracking down the living specimens in the different countries I visited.

“From the people of the UAE, Omani pomegranate or garlic farmers, to botanists at Kew, video makers, friends, expert scanners to capture the most accurate details and colours of the paintings and perfectionist framers. It’s a project that has generated a great deal of positive energy, for which I am very grateful and inspired.

“I hope this exhibition will open people’s eyes to the little details that they may take for granted. I hope it will make them look a little closer at the detail around them every day and appreciate the beauty and fascination in plants we see all around us.”

The Plants of the Qur'ān exhibition will run from 1 April to 17 September 2023, at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art in Kew Gardens. As part of their research, Dr Ghazanfar also compiled a book to complement Sue’s illustrations, which is available to pre-order now: Plants of the Qur’ān - Pre-order | The Kew Shop

Sami Rahman is a freelance lifestyle writer based in London. 

Follow her on Twitter: @bysamirahman