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BOTANICAL ENCOUNTERS: Farming In The High Atlas Mountains Of Morocco

Words and pictures by Ida K. Rigby, for Let’s Talk Plants! October 2023.

Farming in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco

I had planned to continue our discussion of acacias of southern Africa, but when the 6.8 earthquake devastated areas in the High Atlas of Morocco where I hiked in late October 2013, I decided instead to share some photos of the pre-quake epicenter. What might be of interest to SD Horticultural Society members is seeing how the Berber inhabitants of this area have managed to cultivate crops in a terrain seemingly totally inhospitable to eking out an existence. Produce from the cherry, apricot, apple and walnut orchards and gardens that now feed families was sent to markets throughout the area, including Marrakech. Now tourism sustains most households. People (and their mules) work as guides for hikers and trekkers and in the hotels in Imlil where Moroccans escape the heat of summer and foreign tourists visit.

These images show the ingenuity that has allowed people to grow crops in this arid, rocky, high-altitude terrain. They also illustrate why the area was so vulnerable to the devastation that has now occurred.

We climbed high into the mountains on well leveled, but terrifyingly precipitous roads around hairpin curves where trucks, autos, donkeys and pedestrians met until we came to villages clinging to the steep hillsides.

Carefully fitted rock walls supported driveways, paths and hillsides.

Most of these mud brick and/or stone structures are now the heaps of rubble we see in news reports. Looking down from the roads you can see homes surrounded by non-native trees:

... they are the small orchards of cherries, apricots and apples, which mules and donkeys transport to home.

Some of the trees were just beginning to show fall colors because daytime weather was still very hot and dry.

Looking down into the valleys we could see farmed terraces interspersed among the fruit trees.

Some terraces were hewn directly out of the deep red clay; others were supported by tightly fitting rock walls.

Rough timber was used for fencing and erosion control on the steep hillsides.

Much of daily life takes place on the mud rooftops. Our lodge was high in the mountains.

Mules carried us and our duffle bags up the mountain trails.

Across a deep valley from our lodge a village clung to the steep side of a mountain, ...

... and in the far distance is Jbel Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa at 13,671 feet.

The nights were cold as snow had begun to fall at the highest elevations even while days were very hot where we were.

We hiked on the foot paths ...

... that led to the villages and through the apricot and apple orchards. Courtyard walls made use of the living rock, mud, timber and rocks.

Be sure to look at the details of the wall construction. The secure construction could withstand any amount of rain and wind, but not a 6.8 earthquake. We hiked down to a river where there was a little native vegetation reminding us of our chaparral and high altitude riparian areas.

In the area the native vegetation consisted of juniper, Atlas cedar, Holm and Kermes oak, Barbary thuya, Aleppo pine, carob and organ trees. In and along the rocky riverbed areas had been irrigated and farmed.

Villagers herded sheep and goats, ...

... which browsed the greenery remaining in the now dry riverbed and climbed by newly planted fruit trees and green terraces.

These photos show the continuation of the pastoral life in the High Atlas Mountains before the recent quake. It was a testament to the ingenuity of the Berbers who found ways to live and garden in this harsh, arid environment of rock and clay.


Ida Rigby is a past SDHS Board member and Garden Tour Coordinator. She has gardened in Poway since l992 and emphasizes plants from the northern and southern Mediterranean latitudes.

Her garden received the San Diego Home/Garden Magazine Best Homeowner Design and Grand Prize in their Garden of the Year contest in l998. Her travels focus on natural history.


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