Monday, January 17, 2011

The Argan Tree and its amazing oil

Argan forest south of Essaouira

When I was in Marrakesh I would sometimes see carts with these large dark nuts that looked like big acorns, or giant olives that were being toasted to a dark brown.  I never asked what they were as I don’t speak French very well and virtually no Arabic or Berber, which makes me a bit shy sometimes, though you would never guess that if you were following me around.  Moroccans are very engaging at times and life here is very interactive.  At any rate, it wasn’t until I came to Essaouira, a notoriously historic port on the Atlantic coast that I found out what the nuts were.

Camel eating Argan leaves

I came to Essaouira with a man named Harold, who has lived in Morocco for 28 years. I met him a mutual friend who lives in Portland.  Harold goes back and forth between a place in the Medina in Marrakesh and an apartment on the beach in Essaouira.  We were driving across a mostly flat stony plain with a Spanish painter friend of Harold’s in the back seat with his spry 87 year old mother.  I had been dozing, but I woke up as if on cue as we entered an area of low hills forested with rather evenly spaced, thorny trees with multiple twisted trunks.  Harold said to me, I was just going to wake you to see the goats in the trees. Herds of goats can be seen standing on their hind legs eating the leaves, or even up in the branches having climbed them.  Goats seem to be able to eat just about anything.  The trees are called Argan, Argania spinosa botanically, and are a member of the familiy Sapotaceae which includes several other fruiting trees of importance in tropical climates.

The trees have very dark green foliage, tough little leaves in clusters amongst long spines.  In times of prolonged drought the leaves drop off, which may happen if they don’t get any rain this year.  There has been next to none and the rainy season is half over by mid January of 2011.  The tree can go in to dormancy for as long as 7 years!  The nuts, which are used to extract an edible oil require over a year to mature, and are harvested in the month of July.  The tree is a relic of the Tertiary period, going back 65 million years.  It grows anywhere from 15 to 30 feet tall and is endemic to the coast of Morocco and part of Algeria, the Canary Islands, and a small part of Spain.  The majority of the trees grow between the town of Essaouira and the city of Agadir.  In the past 100 years, half of its range has been destroyed by development, grazing by goats, and for firewood as the wood makes good charcoal.  It tolerates extreme heat, poor soils, and prolonged drought, and is extremely important in the desert climate of North Africa.  For this reason, in 1998 UNESCO declared it’s remaining range as the Arganeriaie World Heritage Biosphere Reserve in hopes of preserving this tree, so very essential to the environmental health of the region.

One of the methods of encouraging protection is the expansion of the use of the trees fruit as a source of Argan Oil.  Oil production is done exclusively by women, and the King of Morocco has encouraged the formation of cooperatives to create more jobs for women in the country.  This nutty tasting oil is similar in many ways to Olive oil, though it loses flavor when used for cooking and is thus used more as a flavoring oil.  The delicious taste has made it an trendy product in the gourmet food markets of Europe and North America.  The process of extracting the oil is a labor intensive one.  Traditionally, the nuts were fed to goats, through who’s digestive system the pulpy skin is consumed.  The remaining nut is then removed from the goat’s dung and cracked and roasted, bringing out the nutty flavor.  The roasted seeds are then ground in to a paste and mixed with water and then pressed, extracting the oil.  Since the oil is now being marketed commercially, the goat dung phase of the process is circumvented. Cultivation is essentially native, natural and organic unlike the production of many other kinds of edible oils.

Cracking Argan nuts after peeling them, and a stone oil press (right)
There is a wonderful shop in the Essaouira Medina (old city) called Planette Bio Aromatherapie, where Argan oil is produced and mixed with a variety of medicinal herbs to treat a wide range of ailments.  Women sitting on the floor peel off the pulpy skin and crack the nuts between stones in the traditional manner, the shells of which make up a carpet in the shop.  All of the waste product is used for animal feed.  The proprietor gave me a tour, explaining the various pastes and soaps mixed with herbs to treat arthritis, eczema and other skin conditions, and as a shampoo.  I bought the one for arthritis to treat the inflammation I frequently experience from the hard work I do with my hands.  He told me that frequent massaging of the paste can also straighten disfigured fingers, which is an affliction that my Mother suffers from.  I look forward to having her try it to see if it helps.  I also bought a bar of their soap as I tend to have dry skin, and a bottle of oil to use in cooking and for massage.  It smells wonderful!

Planette Bio shop in Essaouira.  Notice the nut shells carpeting the floor.

Medicinal Herbs
 The oil is rich in unsaturated fatty acids and is thought to have blood cholesterol reducing qualities.  It also has a high vitamin E content, twice that of Olive Oil, and is being used to produce soaps and wrinkle prevention creams.  Because of the labor intensive process needed to extract the oil, it sells for up to 50 dollars for a 500 milliliter bottle in Western markets.  It takes about 80 pounds of fruit to produce a liter of oil.  A traditional Moroccan dish called Amlou is made with a mixture of the oil with almonds and honey as an energy sweet, and is considered an aphrodisiac.  It is also used in Tajines and Couscous dishes, and as a dip with honey for bread.  It is excellent as an oil for salads.
Various Argan Pastes and jars of herbs, natural scents, and dyes
The tree is now being cultivated in Tunisia, Libya, and Israel and I found references to a few specimens surviving at the University of Arizona arboretum, where the trees have survived temperatures as low as 20 degrees.

They served Argan Oil at breakfast mixed with honey at the beautiful Riad I stayed in in Fez when I first came to Morocco and it is delicious, though I didn’t know what it was at the time.  Now I do.  Purchasing Argan oil products help insure the economic support that encourages conservation of an essential but threatened ecosystem, and the World can always use more of that.  The fact that the forests are native and productive agriculturally is significant as well, since native plants harbor native biodiversity that exotic crops do not.  So in it’s way, Argan can heal the environment while healing humans at the same time, which is holistic in the truest sense.

Argon Products being sold in the Medina

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Upcoming Lectures; 'The Pleasure Garden'

I will be giving 3 lectures this Spring on 'The Pleasure Garden; Creating Paradise on Earth'

Madrasa  Bou Inania, Meknes, Morocco
This lecture will incorporate images from this winter's travels in Andalusia and Morocco along with places I have visited in other parts of the World, and gardens that I have built that express the idea of manifesting pleasure in the garden, and thus a kind of paradise.  I will discuss the historic role of gardens as a symbol of paradise, and the elements that make it so.  I will then delve in to the decadent elegance that for me makes a garden truly pleasurable, which is ultimately an intimate bond with the wonders of nature.  Lie down on a soft bed with pillows, or better yet take a hot bath surrounded by lush gardens, serenaded by fountains, inhaling divine fragrances, succumbing to visual beauty.  I hope to see you at one of these talk.  Ciao, Jeffrey

March 1  Real Jardin Botanico (Royal Botanical Garden), Madrid, Spain

April 11  San Diego Horticultural Society, San Diego, California

April 14  Southern California Horticultural Society, Riverside, California

Monday, January 10, 2011

Hotel La Mamounia, Marrakesh

Hotel La Mamounia

La Mamounia Gate

For many years the Hotel La Mamounia in Marrakesh has been another one of those legendary places I longed to see some day if I ever made it to Morocco.  I had read celebrity lists of their favorite hotel in the World and La Mamounia was the one that was mentioned most.  In photos I had seen rose petal strewn fountains, something I borrowed and often do in my own garden whenever I have a special event.  So when I arrived in Marrakesh, I looked at their website and sent an email saying I was working on a book on Moroccan gardens and with an accompanying lecture, and would it be possible to tour the gardens.  I received in response a series of official press releases, but not an invitation to come in.  I went by the front gate and was told the hotel was closed to the public for special events until after the New Year.   I sent another email and got a standard reply that tours were available  in the morning and afternoon on weekdays by appointment, but photos were not allowed.  “Send us a copy of your magazine when it reaches publication”.  Hmmm, a magazine article with no photos?

La Mamounia had been closed for 3 years for a complete renovation  and had reopened the end of September of 2010.  It originally had 50 rooms and was enlarged to 100 in 1946.  There were three subsequent renovations over the years, but the last one more than doubled the number of rooms to 210.  The website is beautiful, with music and brief slide shows of the various types of accommodation at

A Pavilion to the side of the entry

The hotel was built in 1922 on the site of a garden given to Prince Moulay Mamoun by his father, King Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdellah as a customary wedding gift.  Built in a blend of Moroccan and Art deco styles, the hotel became legendary, hosting a long list of celebrities and political power houses.  Winston Churchill, a frequent guest called it ‘The most lovely spot in the World’.  The Rolling Stones, Elton John, and Led Zeppelin came here.  Salma Hyack and Gweneth Paltrow attended the latest reopening ceremonies.  Whoop dee do.  I am not a celebrity beyond the pebble mosaic circuit, but I showed up at the gate on January 3rd at 4:30 in the afternoon for my tour appointment.  I was told at the gate that tours were only conducted in the mornings.  I insisted that I had made a reservation and was told to arrive at 4:30.  I was wearing my best clothes and even shaved for this. So they let me in.  I immediately started taking photos of the beautiful new entry gardens now that I was unsupervised, though I felt like I was breaking the rules, but once inside I was treated quite well.

The Entry Garden

I went to the reception desk and told a desk clerk I was here for a tour of the gardens.  A man who looked like a member of the secret service was summoned and asked me to have a seat on plush sofas surrounding a low table with a huge brass tray with a mandala of Medjool dates arranged on it.  I love dates and was tempted to start chowing them down but I restrained myself to feign dignity in case my host suddenly arrived.  A young man in a fine dark brown suit approached me and told me he would take  me on a tour of the hotel grounds.  We walked through the lobby as very ordinary guests wandered around in shorts and T shirts, and I no longer felt at all out of place.  As long as you pay your room bill you can do as you please without pretension apparently.  Passing the Churchill Bar, which hadn’t opened for the evening, we entered a fabulous covered swimming pool pavilion as elegant as a pool can get.  The pool is surrounded by whitewashed Moroccan arches with tile zellij columns.  Centered on the far end of the pool is a keyhole arch framing a white lounge bed with pillows.  This is my kind of embellishment for sure.  I asked if I could take photos and the young man said yes, as long as I didn’t photograph guests.  I wasn’t the least bit interested in having guests in my photos unless it was Mick Jagger or Robert Plant, so that wasn’t a problem.  We walked from there through a classic courtyard with central fountain and out on to a terrace where guests were relaxing in the late afternoon. 

The Indoor Swimming Pool

The terrace is adjacent  to large Moroccan gardens with green lawns and rows of orange trees covered in fruit.  I can only imagine the sublime aroma when the trees are in bloom.  On one side are three luxury Riads, 3 bedroom apartments, each with a private swimming pool.  There is a VIP entrance here for famed guests that don’t want to be seen entering through the lobby.  Straight axial paths took us out and around an exercise  pavilion with the traditional green glazed tile hip roofs, and a very elegant place to play ping pong.  We then approached a restaurant terrace with a series of very beautiful courtyards, one with a long central pool lined with candle lanterns ending at a tile zellij wall fountain.  The proportions of the courtyards was in line with the best of Andalusian design, with tastefully restrained plain whitewashed surfaces rather than carved stucco reliefs.  The adjacent courtyard was empty of furnishings as if it were only for the contemplation of its simple square blue tiled pool and white marble fountain.  I was loving every second as we were the only people in this area.  Everything was perfectly brand new but exquisitely crafted and spotlessly clean, like seeing a palace in it’s heyday rather than worn down by the ages like so many historic places I had visited on this trip.

Ping Pong Pavilion
Pool and Colonnade by the restaurant

The long pool

Restaurant Courtyard

We returned to the main hotel building and entered a room that used to be the dining room but had been refurbished as a grand hall next to a bar.  The ceiling was a large decorative panel painted by the French artist Jacques Majorelle.  This was the end of the tour, and I was quite happy.  I milled around the staggered stepped tinted cement panels of the entry gardens again for some time before I left through the front gate, stopping to visit with the men who originally let me pass.  They were quite friendly by this point and I shared photos of my work in a copy of the book I published last year.  I’ll be publishing another book when I get home including images I took at the hotel during this visit.  Ironically, I didn’t notice any rose petals in any of the pools.  Oh well, I’m sure they still do it, just not today.

Entry Garden Fountain

Thanks for reading, Jeffrey

The Entry Garden

Friday, January 7, 2011

Jardin Majorelle, Marrakesh, Morocco

Jardin Majorelle, Marrakesh

The Entry Fountain
Some 20 years ago I saw photos of a garden in Morocco with  the most extraordinary electric blue walls and lush plantings.  I was captivated by the vivid hue of blue and after some searching, managed to find a close approximation at a local hardware store.  I bought a gallon and painted my bedroom ceiling and back door.  A Glenora seedless grape I had planted and trained over the door and bedroom window takes on a similar hue when the fruit is ripe making a delicious color combination. 
My Back Door painted Majorelle Blue

This past summer I bought another gallon and painted the foundation of my house as if in anticipation of what I hoped would be the fulfillment of a dream to travel in Morocco and visit the garden where this blue color made it’s debut.  A few months later  I was there.
Majorelle Blue Paint

The place is the Majorelle Garden in Marrakesh.  Jacques Majorelle was a French painter who’s garden became his ultimate creation.   Born in 1886 in Nancy France, he was the son of Louis Majorelle,  a famous furniture designer in the Art Nouveau style.  He went on to study painting at the Ecole de Beaux-Arts in his home town and later in Paris.  In 1910 he  traveled to Egypt and became captivated by Northern Africa.  9 years later he went to Marrakesh, Morocco to recover from heart problems caused by Tuberculosis.  Establishing himself with the French upper class in the city, he acquired a 9 acre property in palm groves of the El Hassania district outside the city and built a villa.  In 1924 he commenced to build a painting studio designed by the architect  Paul Sinior, which he painted the iconic color of blue he developed and named after himself as Majorelle bleu.  He even had the color patented.   Shortly after that he began to transform the palm grove in to a botanical garden.
Kalanchoe beharensis
Cactus garden

The Painting Studio
He continued to paint and travel in Africa in a style that could be categorized as Orientalism, but is more specific to actual experience rather than romantic conceptualism.  At the same time he became an avid collector of plants.  The garden contains many species of palms, aloes, succulents, yuccas and bamboos. There are two massive specimens of Beucarnia recurvata, the Ponytail Palm, near the painting studio.  Numerous cactus, which are all native to the Western Hemisphere, and Euphorbias, native to the Eastern Hemisphere surround a shallow pale turquoise pool with a blue central fountain.  A long axial pool runs perpendicular to the pond, terminating at a pavilion painted mint green with a carved white  stucco band and a green glazed tile roof in the Moroccan style. Bougainvilleas were planted on walls and trellises for their vivid colors, and a large square pond was filled with a collection of water lilies.  He opened the garden to the public in 1947.

The Lily Pool
The blue painted walls and pool edges give the garden a cohesive cooling feel.  Clay pots painted in bright lemon, orange, and blue line the raised polished terracotta colored cement paths that wind through immaculately maintained beds of carefully spaced plants.  It is these vivid colors that give the garden it’s signature character.  Their brilliant hues set off the various shades of green and blue in the plants.  The ground is mulched with a pink crushed stone that is native to the area and is the predominant color of buildings in Marakkesh.  Plant specimens are ringed in carefully sculpted craters to maximize the absorbsion of water in this hot dry climate.   A crew of gardeners continuously rake the ground of every last leaf and petal except in the bamboo groves, which probably need the mulch and defy tidiness.  Numerous species of birds are attracted to the garden because of it’s lushness and the availability of water.
Red path and Aloes
Majorelle was the victim of two automobile accidents, the first after which he had his foot amputated.  He returned to France after the second accident in 1962, and died shortly afterwards.  The garden remained open to the public but went in to decline from lack of maintenance.
Checkerboard Tile Steps
Lily Pool and Art Nouveau Balcony

In 1980, fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge’ purchased and restored the property, supervised by the American landscape architect Madison Cox.  The Moroccan botanist Abderrazak Ben Chaabane was responsible for the redesigning of the plant collections.  Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge lived in the house until Saint Laurent’s death in November 2009 on the adjacent property called Villa Oasis.  These extensive gardens are unfortunately not open to the public, though there is a tantalizing view  through a small window grille from the street.  I hoped to find a way to visit but so far have not been successful.
New Years Collage Gallery

The painting studio was converted in to a Museum of Islamic Arts, displaying the couple’s collection.  At the time of my visit there is a wonderful exhibit of African inspired fashion by Saint Laurent.  The exhibit was designed by Pierre Berger using fragrant cedar wood wall panels cut with Moroccan door shapes and an incredible round room lined with large mirrors, and a ceiling of LED lights mimicking stars that reflect in to infinity.  An adjacent building contains an elegant gift shop, café courtyard, and a small gallery displaying New Years collages that Saint Laurent made every year to send to clients and friends.  The message was always love.  There is a simple monument to him on the far side of the garden, a marble plinth with an ancient weathered fluted column standing at it’s center.  His ashes were spread in the garden as was his wish.

Painting a fresh coat on one of the pots
When I get home I am definitely going to try my hand at painting some terra cotta pots, and my old house could use a coat of paint too to compliment the Majorelle blue foundation that I painted this summer.  Perhaps mint green and turquoise with a lemon trim and some orange.  I like to do things that remind me of places I have visited that I love and want to bring in to my consciousness on a daily basis.

Painted Pots

Mint Pavilion and Long Pool
Cycad Fronds and Shadows

Steps of the Painting Studio

Mint Green Pavilion

Turtle and Water Lilies

Blue Fountain

The Cafe

Summers are incredibly hot in Marrakesh, and the shade and cooling colors of the garden make for a welcome respite from the harshness of the climate.  In the winter the weather is mild, pleasantly warm in the day time and chilly to downright cold at night.  The light in winter is beautiful and there are great sunsets to be had after the garden closes at 5 in the evening.  Once in a more suburban setting, the garden is now walled in by luxury condominium buildings and heavy traffic as Marrakesh explodes with development.  Jacques Majorelle would not recognize his old neighborhood.

Villa Oasis

The garden was ridiculously crowded the first day that I visited as Marrakesh was full of tourists for the New Years holiday.  The city had become a very trendy destination, with the garden being one of it’s primary draws.  So I returned early the next morning and was the first person to enter that day, for a short and blissful time having the garden to myself.  There was a mourning dove drinking from the lovely tiled entry fountain when I walked in.  And then the first busload of people arrived…

Bismarkia nobilis Palm frond
Dove by the Entry Fountain