Morocco and the Great Atlas
By Marc Long
The origins and diversity of the Maghreb flora offers many opportunities to the student. The Moroccan flora in particular is amongst the most diverse in the Mediterranean basin after that of Turkey, Greece and Spain. The numbers of species is estimated at 3,750 of which approximately 600 are of endemic origin. One third of these are confined to the High Atlas.
Many factors combine to erode this diversity. The principal one being over grazing by migratory goat herds as well as illegal felling for fuel and burning to gain pasture for animals. The harsh climate affects endemics with a small distribution especially at high altitude. Juniperus thurifera which once girdled the mass of the Atlas with a belt of forest has been almost completely felled and the possibilities of its re-establishment are slim.
In June 1968 a Kew Guild award and money donated by the Alpine Garden Society enabled me to spend a month in Morocco. Much of this time was spent in the High Atlas, a range of rugged mountains and hills extending N.E. by East from the Atlantic seaboard to the southern borders of Algeria forming a barrier between the northern plains and the pre-Sahara.
In the countryside buses are sporadic or non existent so a car was hired for a period of three weeks and together with Dr. Mohammed Rejdali at the Institut Agronornique et Veterinaire Hassan II in Rabat an itinerary was planned to include selected sites of botanic interest at this time of the year. The localities chosen were the following:
1. The Toubkal National Park.
2. The Argan forest to the West of Taroudannt.
3. The Dades and Todra Gorges.
4. Jbel Ayachi.
5. Azrou, Ifrane and environs.
As well as botanising, visits were made to the cities of Fez and Marrakech both preserving in their Medina the appearance to the visitor of a medieval Islamic city. A brief foray was made through the date palm growing regions of Tafilalt to the rolling sand dunes of Merzouga.
The approach road to Asni through the Mouiay Brahim Gorges yielded an abundance of roadside flora. Patches of blue Catananche coerulea, Limonium mouretii were interspersed with Rumex papilo and the metallic Eryngium ilicifolium. Salvia taraxacifolia an endemic was also seen in places. Descending the slopes towards a dry river bed enclosed within stiff hedges of Ononis spinosa and Capparis spinosa, Galium corrudifolium was found in conjunction with Coronilla viminalis.
An overnight stop at the picturesque Youth Hostel at Asni was followed by an early morning departure for Imlil where the car was left under the watchful eye of a ‘Gardien’. Fine Walnut groves surrounding the village gave way to terraced banks enclosing irrigated parcels of land as the mule track wound its way tortuously to the Netler refuge (3,207m) at the foot of Mt. Toubkal. High altitude and exposure to a harsh climate has resulted in vegetation dominated by caespitose shrubs such as Bupleurum spinosum and Vella pseudoeytisus. These sheltered a wide variety of rock garden gems such as Campanula atlantica, the compact Pterocephalus depressus, Eryngium bourgatii and Leucanthemum catananche.
The following day a trek from Oukaimeden to Tachedirrt proved to be one of the highlights of my stay in Morocco. This area is incredibly rich in plant species and fortunately there was no evidence of transhumance leaving the surrounding meadows and slopes to riot in colour. Potentilla nevadensis, Echium flavum and Dianthus gaditanus was found along with Euphorbia pinea and Onopordon accaule. Great drifts of Armeria alliacea and Catananehe caerulea dotted the valley above Tachedirrt. A warm welcome in Tachedirrt included an introduction to every person in the village, an exchange of gifts and later that evening a delicious Couscous washed down with mint tea followed by a sound nights sleep in a Berber house.
Continuing southwards the summit of Tizi-n-Test was botanised yielding Ptilotrichum spinosum together with the red stems and bright green bracts of Euphorbia dasycarpa as well as the pungent Thymus dreatensis in full bloom.
A dizzy descent through a series of sweeping hair pin bends eventually led to the broad river valley of the Oued Sous. Here the land is intensively cultivated, the fertile soil and constant irrigation support large tracts of Citrus groves and other crops. Of these the most interesting is the endemic Aragania spinosa confined to the sub-littoral zone of south west Morocco. A valuable edible oil is extracted from the seed and the wood which was formerly abundant is unrivalled for its hardness and durability. Photographs of both flower and fruit were obtained. As is the case elsewhere in Morocco overgrazing and felling has prevented regeneration leading to the forest becoming sparse and unproductive.
Two days of isolation and uncertainty followed driving on unmetalled roads (Pistes) through the Dades and Todra gorges. Here eroded limestone ridges alternated with spectacular deep gorges enclosed by sheer cliff faces.
The area around Azrou and Ifrane is remarkable, for it is here one can see forests of Cedrus atlantica, showing welcome signs of good husbandry and natural regeneration. it was also exciting to witness the provenance of what is in Europe and N. America a feature in many historic parks and gardens.
Near the Col du Zad frequent sightings of bright purple clumps forced a roadside halt to reveal Cynara hystrix. Another site close to Ifrane sustained Inula montana and small pockets of the attractive Centaurea ineana as well as the tall pale endemic Eryngium moroccanum.
A month passed all too quickly, but as I write this one of my most vivid memories is of a late evening drive through the Skoura oasis, a fresh breeze blowing through the window and the date palms, their arching pinnate leaves borne on long elegant trunks silhouetted against the sky.