An expedition to the Atlas Mountains of Morocco
By Tim Upson
Morocco offers an immediate and enduring fascination. Although on the doorstep of Europe, Its Islamic and traditional cultures seem a world away. Although intrigued to experience this culture, It was research work on the genus Lavandula that took me to Morocco during February and March of 1994. Morocco has one of the greatest diversities of species of this genus, including four endemic species, Our aim was to collect both living and herbarium specimens to provide much needed matenal for my Ph.D. research on the biosystematic Lavandula, being undertaken at the University of Reading.
Accompanied by my supervisor, Dr. S. L. Jury, we jointly organised the expedition with the Institut Agronomique et Veterinaire, Hassan II, (I.A.V.), Rabat, continuing the long standing collaboration between the Institutes. Together with Ms Bushra Tahira from I.A.V., Rabat, working on the genus Thymus in Morocco, we squeezed both the luggage and ourselves into a Renault 4 supplied by the institute and headed south.
After negotiating the heat and crowds of Marrakesh, the grandeur of the High Atlas loomed before us. Climbing up towards the Tizi-n-Test pass the landscape was at times awe-inspiring Berber villages clung to the steep hillsides with the snow-capped mountain peaks rising beyond. Amongst this scenic grandeur we found some of the last stands of the endemic Cupressus atlantica, which probably once covered much of the now denuded hillsides.
One of the first plants to catch our attention was the magnificent deep red flowers of the scrubby Polygala balansa. In searching the steep banks we found our first endemic lavender, L. maroccana, along with the more common L. dentata and L. multifida. Although a rather straggly bush it bears attractive deep purple flowers. As we reached the top of the pass at 2,100 metres, the Sous Valley and the Anti-Atlas beyond were spread out before us.
Making a short diversion up the western coast, we visited the area around Cap Rhir, just north of Agadir. Here the vegetation is more closely related to that of the Macronesian islands than the rest of Morocco. Dominated by the succulent Euphorbia regisjubae and E. anteuphorbia, it boasted populations of L. maroccana, L. multifida and L. dentata var. candicans. This latter species is a distinct variant, with densely tomentose leaves giving it an almost white appearance.
Moving south into the Anti-Atlas both the vegetation and people changed. Amongst the drier but equally spectacular hillsides we were able to find another Moroccan endemic L. mairei, a fine shrubby plant with deep purple flower spikes. Nearby were two other endemics, L. brevidens and L. stoechas ssp. atlantica. Amongst the equipment we took with us was a Global Positioning System (G.P.S.), enabling accurate longitude, latitude, grid reference and altitude to be recorded for each of our collection sites. This proved particularly valuable on this stretch of the journey, with few landmarks, villages or detailed maps from which to locate and record our collecting sites.
Further south the landscape was transformed, palm oasis’s appearing in dry valleys and the stratigraphy of the hills contorted into weird and wondrous patterns. As the Anti-Atlas gave way to the hamada, the beginnings of the Sahara desert, we encountered another of Morocco’s endemic lavenders. Lavandula coronopifolia var. humbertii was common in the desert wadis, the annual stems rising from a woody base to bear the light blue flowers. Now the familiar goat and sheep herds had given way to camels, the local people no longer Berbers but Sahrawi and many of the plants now belonging to unfamiliar genera.
Unfortunately, time prevented us from continuing further south but, pleased with the specimens we had managed to find, we turned north again. As we traversed the High Atlas and then the Middle Atlas the wonderful forests of Cedrus atlantica provided a last botanical highlight before heading home.
Back in the U.K. the herbarium material of all the plants collected is proving to be a valuable addition to the collections already held from Morocco. Duplicates are being distributed to Kew, the Natural History Museum and European Herbaria. Seed collected has germinated enabling a survey of the chromosome numbers to be completed, with many of the species not previously counted. Living plant material, much not previously in cultivation, is being grown at Reading and has been distributed to the N.C.C.P.G. national collections and to Kew to be principally held by the Herbaceous Section.
The culture, landscapes and plants of Morocco certainly left us intrigued to see more.