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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: The Road to Marrakech

Dates, and date trees, are ubiquitous in Morocco.

By Jim Bishop.

Last month we traveled with a group of friends to tour Morocco. It had been on our travel wish list for a while. Morocco has mosques, horseshoe arches, tilework, carved plaster, carpets, punctured brass lighting, pottery, leather tanning, high snowy mountains, Macaque monkeys, deserts, camels, Roman ruins, medinas, riads (walled houses with a central courtyard), kasbahs, mud bricks, tagine, spices, donkey carts, and much, much more. But since this is a column about plants, we won’t be discussing any of these here!

Getting to Know Skoura

For part of our tour, we stayed in the remote village of Skoura on flats below the high Atlas mountains. While our accommodation in a refurbished kasbah was beautiful and romantic, the traditional living and farming methods of the area have been unchanged for hundreds of years.

To get to our accommodations, we drove three miles in the bed of a seasonal river. Just days before our arrival, the river had flooded from rains in the mountains, cutting the town off. In the winter, it can be months before the river subsides enough to cross. The most common method of transportation is walking and occasionally by small motor scooter. Donkeys pulling carts is the main method of transporting crops to market.

A local guide gave us a seven-mile-long walking tour through the agricultural fields to the somewhat famous restored Kasbah Amridil and we enjoyed a traditional lunch in a Berber home. We learned how several generations lived together in the kasbah, and how many of the local food crops were processed and stored.

Where Water Comes and Goes

Along the way, the guide also educated us about the local water source and how it's distributed for local residents and agriculture. The primary source of water for locals originates with the numerous seasonal rivers and creeks that run out of the Atlas Mountains. As much of the water seeps into underground aquifers below the rivers, farmers irrigate using subsurface ditches and tunnels, many dug as far back as the 1400s and still maintained by hand digging with shovels. Along the edges of the rivers are mounds of dirt every twenty to forty feet with holes dug in the middle to reach underground canals that channel the water to villages and farms. Having the ditches underground slows losses from evaporation in the hot desert. As the ditches go downhill, they eventually reach the surface near farms, where the water is channeled above ground to orchards and fields.

In Skoura, the water was shared by three different farms. Each had fixed hours of the day during which they were entitled to eight hours of water. The water was diverted towards or away from each farm by digging out or filling in ditches to block or open up the water flow. Some of the ditches continue further downstream underground to reach other villages further out in the desert.

Dates, Olives, and the Wild Landscape

Agriculture in Morocco, like so many other things there, follows ancient traditions. Much is still done by human and animal labor. We only saw one tractor in over a week of traveling around Morocco. Most of the agriculture is centered on a few crops: dates, olives, figs, wheat, pomegranates, walnuts, almonds, alfalfa (for animals), small vegetable gardens, honey, sheep, and goats.

Date and olive groves surrounding a kasbah.

Dates and olives are particularly important agricultural, and cultural, foods in Morocco. Moroccans eat dates three times a day, and to support this high demand for the fruit, flood irrigation is used to water different varieties of commercially-grown date palms (Phoenix dactylifera) in Morocco. The varieties are divided into three main cultivar groups: soft (e.g. 'Medjool'); semi-dry (e.g. 'Zahdi'); and dry (e.g. 'Thoory'). The type of fruit depends on the glucose, fructose, and sucrose content, and the juiciest, best-tasting Medjools are from the south of Marrakech.

Given the ubiquitous production and consumption of dates in Morocco, it will come as no surprise that the most damaging pest of palms in the world poses challenges. Somehow, the red palm weevil (Rhynchophorus ferrugineus) did not become established in northern Morocco until December 2008, by which time it had already become a huge problem for most of the Middle East, southern Europe, and Mexico. Since then, it has become an uncontrollable palm pest in most of Morocco. There is no known cure for the lethal fusarium wilt disease, caused by the pathogen Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. albedinis, which adult weevils inject palm trunks with when laying eggs. In desperation, farmers have discovered that burning off the old fronds and frond bases on palms can slow down the progression of the disease. But the disease is still a problem, and today most new orchards grow olives instead of dates. (Another advantage of growing olives: Morocco also has a problem with a decrease in bee colonies for pollinating crops like dates, but olives are pollinated by the wind.)

Even before the red palm weevil descended upon Morocco, olive trees were just as common as palm trees. The same olive tree produces both black and green olives; the difference in color is due to when they are harvested. Like most crops in Morocco, they are harvested by hand and watered with flood irrigation. Every meal in Morocco includes a bowl of mixed olives.

Outside of olives and dates, most other crops grow in smaller quantities. Since much of the farming is done by human labor, crops are grown under date and olive orchards to take advantage of the irrigation used for these crops.

Much of the ‘wild’ landscape in Morocco looks barren. This is largely a result of small groups of goats and sheep grazing that will eat just about anything. A common Biblical vision in the area is a group of shepherds dressed in traditional djellabas—long, loose, hooded garments with full sleeves—tending a herd on a hillside.

Traditional chicken tagine, topped with vegetables and olives.

One highlight of our tour was when a local family fixed us a traditional lunch of chicken tagine. Before the main course was an assortment of pastries, dates, olives, humus, and other salad-type dishes, followed by the traditional Moroccan hot mint tea. We sat on the floor of the nicest room in the house and enjoyed these delicious treats served by our guide, while the woman who prepared the meal stayed in the kitchen or hid outside the room. After lunch, we returned to our kasbah for a relaxing afternoon on one of the many sunny patios that overlooked the date orchids with the snowcapped Atlas Mountains in the background. Given all there is to see and do in Morocco, it was nice to balance the sightseeing with some quiet moments of reflection.

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