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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Exploring greener pastures in Morocco with a newly translated book 

Contessa Giuppi Pietromarchi’s 1987 book ‘Maroc en Fleurs’ is being published in English for the first time and offers a look at Morocco’s landscape, as well as the life of this colourful horticulturist

Contessa Giuppi Pietromarchi’s garden in Rabat. Courtesy Giulio Pietromarchi​​​​​​​
Contessa Giuppi Pietromarchi’s garden in Rabat. Courtesy Giulio Pietromarchi​​​​​​​

In many ways, Contessa Giuppi Pietromarchi’s story is that of the classic expat gardener – and yet, in others, it could not be more different.

In 1986, the Italian landscape designer moved to Rabat, when her husband was appointed as the Italian ambassador to Morocco. Not for the first time, she found herself having to build a home in a strange place with few friends.

Already a specialist in ­Mediterranean botany, Pietromarchi looked to the landscape to make sense of her new home and began to travel, falling in love with an entirely new palette of plants. Her enthusiasm was driven, in part, by the disappointing garden that was attached to the official ambassadorial residence. “It was not fantastic, I have to tell you,” she remembers. “I was disappointed, but little by little, I tried to improve it.”

Le Jardin Secret in Medina Marrakech.  Courtesy Giulio Pietromarchi
Le Jardin Secret in Medina Marrakech. Courtesy Giulio Pietromarchi

The result was a sumptuous but ephemeral makeover for the diplomatic grounds, as well as something more enduring: Maroc en Fleurs, a book written by Pietromarchi and published by Soden in 1987, which featured illustrations by one of her new friends, the wife of the British ambassador, Jilly Byatt, and photographs taken by Chilean ambassador Jorge Valdovinos.

For many years, the book was one of the few modern texts available on gardening in the country, which has experienced something of a horticultural revolution in the intervening years. Maroc en Fleurs has now been republished for the first time in English with the assistance of renowned American landscape architect Madison Cox and the Fondation Jardin Majorelle.

The publication places Pietromarchi’s book on a relatively narrow shelf in any horticultural library, ­alongside volumes by other expat ­gardener-writers, such as Eric Moore’s Gardening in the Middle East, Clive Winbow’s The Native Plants of Oman: An Introduction and Anne Love’s Gardening in Oman and the UAE. But unlike those labours of love, often self-financed by devoted amateurs and published on a tight budget, Morocco in Bloom is a visually more sophisticated affair, with photographs taken by the author’s son, professional photographer and filmmaker Giulio Pietromarchi, more famous for his documentation of artist Niki de Saint Phalle’s esoteric Tarot sculpture garden in Tuscany, Italy.

A sketch from the book, depicting arbutus unedo, or the strawberry tree. A botanical illustration taken from one of the prized books in Giuppi Pietromarchi's library.Courtesy Giuppi Pietromarchi
A sketch depicting arbutus unedo, or the strawberry tree. Courtesy Giulio Pietromarchi

The book is also a charming portrait of its author. Following her husband, Pietromarchi lived in eight countries including France, Switzerland, the United States and Egypt, before returning to Italy, where she created many landscapes, especially in Tuscany.

“Gardening has always been like eating for me. Everywhere I have been around the world, I have always looked at the ­possibility of creating some form of greenery, even if it wasn’t possible to create a garden,” she tells me.

This horticultural impulse, the 78-year-old gardening enthusiast insists, stems from her family and upbringing. Pietromarchi was born in 1939 into a horticultural family that ran one of the largest ­commercial nurseries in Italy, and one of her earliest memories is of the tall specimen trees that surrounded her family’s home.

“The first straight lines I remember were the long rows of poplars lined up in perfect order on my grandfather’s land in Saonara, a small village in Veneto,” she tells me. “If I close my eyes, I can still smell the strong scent of the gardenias, on an enclosed plot in a greenhouse with whitewashed windows. As a child, I imagined that I had waved a magic wand and been transported into a perfume bottle.”

Her father, she says, provided her with her earliest horticultural lessons, imbuing her with a love and passion for ­nature, and teaching her “to see the harmony that always reigns in natural environments”. But despite taking various courses since then, the contessa describes herself as largely self-taught.

The Cuisse de Nymphe émue rose. Courtesy Giulio Pietromarchi
The Cuisse de Nymphe émue rose. Courtesy Giulio Pietromarchi

Morocco in Bloom combines coffee-table good looks with a conversational, month-by-month guide to garden tasks. These will benefit gardeners working with plants suited to the kind of Mediterranean climate that can be found throughout Southern ­Europe, North and South Africa, ­Australia and even parts of

the Americas.

Pietromarchi’s chatty but charming almanac is accompanied by a guide to the plants that will flower each month, as well as a compendium of quotes, anecdotes and yet more advice such as the following, for January. “It seems that planting parsley between your roses will increase their fragrance, whereas garlic planted between roses will keep the terrible green aphids at bay,” she writes.

“If we compare a rose to a beautiful woman, it would be natural for her to have her beauty secrets as well. Banana peels, buried at the base of roses, have a miraculous effect on the plant, as they contain magnesium, phosphate, ­calcium, sulphur, silicon

and sodium.”

Updating the book’s photographs with her son, Giulio, Pietromarchi embarked on a 2,000-kilometre, two-month long odyssey around Morocco, which revealed a huge change, not just in the country’s parks and gardens, but also in its climate. “There is a huge difference between Morocco now and what it was like 35 years ago when I wrote the book. Millions of trees and plants have been planted in places like Marrakech and Tangier,” she says.

“The climate has changed all over the world now, but in my time it was quite different. At the time, you could only use my book to garden in Sicily or the southern part of Sardinia, but now you can use it for gardening even in Tuscany.”

Morocco in Bloom by Giuppi Pietromarchi. Courtesy ACC Art Books
Morocco in Bloom by Giuppi Pietromarchi. Courtesy ACC Art Books

As well as featuring numerous botanical illustrations from one of the books in Pietromarchi’s extensive plant library, Morocco in Bloom also includes extensive photographs of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge’s private residence in Marrakech, the Villa Oasis, as well as the Jardin Majorelle – images that communicate, for the contessa, the essential difference between the gardens of the Islamic world and Europe.

“Historically, European gardens were things that you looked at. They were about the beauty of the site, the perspective, the line and about man taking power over nature,” she suggests. “Oriental gardens were always quite different; they were about pleasure, and appealed to the sense of smell and touch, hearing and taste.”

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