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Morocco – a land unlike any I had visited before, a continent I had yet to explore. My decision to travel there was made easier when I learned of an herbal tour to that country, planned and led by an herbalist/aromatherapist.
I would be traveling in a small group, visiting herbal cooperatives and special gardens, making herbal discoveries, and interacting with the warm and wonderful people of Morocco.
One of the leaders of the group was an education representative for an essential oil company. She gave us a brief presentation on some of the oils produced from plants grown in Morocco, including neroli, rose otto, and juniper. Neroli (Citrus auarantium) comes from the bitter orange flower. In a hydrosol, it is said to be good for hot flashes, as well as an antifungal. The rest of this citrus produces different essential oils, such as petitgrain (from the leaves and twigs) and bergamot (from the fruit). We learned from one of our guides that bergamot is used sometimes to cure olives in Morocco, imparting a delicate flavor.
In addition to the formal gardens and herbal businesses we visited, we were fortunate to witness a burgeoning new agricultural venture – cooperatives. These businesses have helped tremendously to increase the economy of rural communities, and are especially effective in helping women of the area produce an income. Though women have gained more rights recently (2004) it is still largely a male dominated society. These cooperatives have afforded women an opportunity to better control their own lives, while still giving them the support and sense of community. There are cooperatives in many areas of agriculture, producing such items as herbal soaps from Moroccan herbs, honey from various plants, and oil from the argan trees. The success of these cooperatives has given rise to a better appreciation of the indigenous plants of Morocco, and so are fostering protection of native plants and greater sustainability.
Argan is a tree that grows only in the barrier forests of the Sahara. The forest belongs to the king, but Moroccans are allowed to harvest the nuts, which is done in two different ways, producing oils for different purposes. The nuts are eagerly eaten by herds of goats, who climb into the trees to feast on the fruits. When they expel the remains (the kernel), women and young children gather the nuts which are then brought to the cooperatives to be made into the cosmetic argan oil. The fruit that is harvested directly from the tree (without passing through the goat’s digestive tract) is made into a highly regarded dipping oil. The argan nut is still extracted from the hard shell by hand, and women sit on the floor, cracking the nut by striking it with a small stone against a larger stone. The rest of the process has been modernized with machinery (expelling the oil from the nuts, bottling, etc). The oil is expensive, but delicious, with a nutty flavor unlike any I’ve ever tasted.
Other cooperatives, such as the Cooperative Feminique des Plantes Aromatiques, concentrate their efforts on the production of herbal soaps. They are proud of their composting, which must be rather difficult in a land experiencing their seventh year of a drought. They grow many varieties of herbs native to the area, including thyme, rosemary, marjoram, mint and lavender. They are also experimenting with vetiver as an erosion control crop, planting it on slopes in an attempt to stabilize the soil. The vetiver plants develop long, fibrous roots, which are woven into window blinds, mats and fans with a pleasing aroma, doubling the value of this tough plant. Because of the harsh, drought conditions, the oils of many of these plants are very concentrated. The farm is irrigated by drip lines, which must be labor intensive in areas where there are still communal wells from which Moroccans must draw their water.
Wherever we went, the hospitality of the Moroccan people was evident. A visit to any one of the cooperatives or businesses included refreshments before anything else (which was tough when we visited three in one day!). An elaborate ritual was required, beginning with the washing of our hands by the host. A large kettle was brought around for our ablutions, and the water was captured in a basin. However, a communal towel was used, negating somewhat the cleansing effect. A typical repast (and this was just a snack) would include bread, with dipping oil, boiled eggs, nuts and fruit, as well as highly sweetened mint tea. Only after partaking of this hospitality could we then conduct business, or tour the facility. It certainly made each visit longer than expected, so we tended to be always on “Morocco time” – late!
Morocco is a fascinating country, a place to embrace with eyes and heart open. From the early morning call to prayer, to the very late night bustle in the souks, there is adventure around every corner. Bargain in the marketplaces, where heaping mounds of spices and herbs abound, along with food and goods of every description. Take in the visual experience of veiled and hennaed women, clad in long robes and shoes with upturned toes and be enthralled by the amazing architecture. Taste the tagines, mint tea, couscous of every kind, and the ubiquitous watermelon. Inhale the scent of pungent thyme and fragrant lavender, and the crisp, citrus tones of the bitter orange tree. Rely on your senses and you will truly discover the essence of Morocco.