If like me you live in the south eastern corner of England, it is easy to become spoiled by the sheer number and range of top rated gardens. Although the county of Kent was historically known as the garden of England - due mainly to its once large swathes of fruit production - the title can still justifiably stand on its private gardens and landscapes alone. In fact, within less than an hour’s drive, you can reach the likes of Kew, Wisley and that contentious garden of gardens – Sissinghurst!
However, even the most difficult climate can produce a world class garden, and the desert conditions of Morocco prove this beyond doubt with the stunning gardens at Marjorelle!
Having arrived at the walled city of Marrakech, my initial experience of the area was of run down French imperialism and significant local poverty. With that in mind I wasn’t expecting too much from my anticipated visit to the Majorelle gardens which turned out no more than a ten minute walk from the cities northern perimeter wall.
Jacques Majorelle was the son of the celebrated Art Nouveau furniture designer Louis Majorelle, and an artist by profession. He studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Nancy, and later at the Académie Julian in Paris where he became trained in the then fashionable ‘easel in the nature’ – whatever that is!
Suffering from Tuberculosis, he moved to Marrakech in 1919, not just to improve his health but to continue his career as an artist. But it was here, after securing 1.2 acres of land in 1924, that he began his greatest masterpiece – now known as the Majorelle gardens.
The imagery throughout the gardens was inspired by his travels through the Atlas Mountains and southern deserts. More specifically, Jacque Majorelle was struck by the Berber habit of outlining window frames and interior alcoves with a particular shade of deep cobalt blue – a colour which he was later to trademark as ‘Majorelle blue’!
Using typical artistic boldness he created a radical backdrop to his idiosyncratic plant collection by painting much of the hard landscaping – including his house and studio – in Majorelle blue. In a single stroke he had fashioned a stunning and unique backdrop to the gardens.
It is easy to become fixated with the blueness of the garden – it is everywhere, but by being everywhere it transforms a garden which is composed of many – and possibly confusing – layers, into a garden of seamless transitions. Even more so, in a climate that can reach temperatures upwards of 40 degrees Celsius, the blue gives the garden both a dramatic cooling and cleansing effect – a welcome relief to the scorching North African heat!
Majorelle is fundamentally influenced by the Islamic style and as you would imagine the garden is composed like a painting, although much of it is based on age old Moroccan principles of irrigation.
These ancient techniques help to explain the presence of the sunken boarders, the extending pseudo canal, and the high concentration of ornamental pools and water features found throughout this landscape. But it is so much more to it than that, not only do they help to define the areas within the garden, they also provide irresistible features that draw you along the various pathways to evermore extravagant vistas. Of course, they also act as a device to keep the environment as cool as possible during the baking heat of summer.
As appealing as the use of colour and water are in this place it would be superficial without the superb quality of both the planting schemes and the specimen plants within them. If Jacque Majorelle had got this part of the garden wrong then this place would be little more than an indulgent copy of a cheap Hollywood film set. However it certainly is not, in fact far from it!
What makes Majorelle a world class garden is that Jacque Majorelle was an obsessive plant hunter, to a point where he would finance his own plant hunting expeditions.
His collection of cacti and succulents is outstanding in itself but it is the details that raises this garden yet further. Substandard specimens are just not accepted here, so it is not just a collection of rare and unusual plants; it is a collection of quality and excellence. But there are further layers of detail. Each specimen plant is given the space required so that every one of them can be seen and appreciated as an individual. Their nearest neighbours are frequently of a different colour and architectural shape so that the plant you are looking at does not fall back to become lost in the general background of foliage.
This effect has been enhanced by covering the ground in a thick layer of terracotta/pink gravel, again to highlight the colour and form of each plant, and all suckered progeny are religiously removed to maintain the clean lines of the parent plant. Maintaining such a strict and ridged regime is not easy and requires constant maintenance form the gardening team. In such a comparatively small garden you may well be surprised to learn that Majorelle runs with a full time team of 12 gardeners - Sissinghurst runs on about 4 and is twice as big!
It is the way that Majorelle manages to deal with its contrasts that make the place so exciting to walk round. Does bamboo fit comfortably with agaves and mammilaria cacti – no? Well they do here. Does a specimen bed work when there is up to 4 metres gap between plants – no? But is does here. Why, because they have not just looked at displaying a selection of plants within a space, they have made the very spaces between the plants a feature of the garden, and this gives Majorelle an almost Zen like quality.
Intentional or not, even when the gardens full of visitors you can still get the feeling of being alone and at peace. This is the truth behind the Majorelle gardens and why it should be considered as one of the world’s greatest gardens.
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