Cactus couture Posted on February 27, 2014

The Riviera experiments with succulents; Morocco glories in them. In Marrakech, 1000 miles further south, the world of cacti and agaves, euphorbias and all the swollen desert-dwellers is a playground for gardeners’ wildest imaginings. It seems they like fat living after all, these prickly things that look so ferocious on the edge of survival in wind-blown wastes. In the gardens of French couturiers and Italian tycoons a cactus can be voluptuous and its spines fashion statements.

The Jardin Majorelle in the heart of Marrakech was the work of the painter Jacques Majorelle more than 70 years ago. Its survival, and its present state as an attraction drawing 700,000 visitors a year, is due to the late Yves St Laurent. Nurture at this level of precision is something I associate with Japan rather than Africa. The very soil, its immaculate beige grains carved into ridges, into perfectly-smooth terraces and gentle basins for irrigation, is a work of art. From it arise the sturdy pillars or the graceful curving stems of palms, and in their delicate tracery of shade shapes of succulents so strange that they might have been invented in Disney’s studios. Smooth blue leaves, waxy, warty, wrinkled, knobby, fasciated, absurd contorted shapes, or rosettes so regular and refined they seem still to be on a designer’s drawing board. Planes of water like glass or gently stirring. A tinkling jet here in the sun, there a generous gush in the dark of a bamboo grove. And brilliant colours that need the brilliant sun to make them bearable: orange and searing ultramarine, lemon yellow and deep Moroccan red.

The International Dendrology Society has the entrée to some very private gardens. We visited half a dozen, including the sumptuous villa of Yves St Laurent’s partner Pierre Bergé. This was a super–privileged tour of a world that pushes the possibilities of plants as far as skill and artistry and money extend. What is even more striking about Marrakech, though, is the size and splendour of the public gardens being created along boulevards and in parks around the edges of the cramped and bustling town. There seems to be hardly a road that is not an incipient avenue of palms. King Mohamed loves gardens, too.

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