wild at heart

Twenty years in The mak­ing, ital­ian writer Um­berto Pasti’s moroc­can hill­side gar­den com­bines spec­tac­u­lar views with a care­fully cul­ti­vated mass of indige­nous Plants he has saved from ex­tinc­tion


Um­berto Pasti is so pas­sion­ate about pre­serv­ing the na­tive flora of north­ern Morocco, he has cre­ated a gar­den on a stony hill­side above the sea south of Tang­ier. It is rain­ing so hard when I ar­rive with the pho­tog­ra­pher that we slip and slide down the wind­ing path to reach the lit­tle stone house. um­berto comes out to greet us, stretches out his arms and hugs us as if we are long-lost friends. ‘You have brought the rain (from eng­land),’ he ex­claims. he tells us that they have not ex­pe­ri­enced proper rain in this north­ern tip of Morocco for three years. ‘The plants, the peo­ple, ev­ery­one needs this rain. We are so happy.’

um­berto is orig­i­nally from Mi­lan and first came to Morocco 30 years ago, when he bought a house in Tang­ier. he has al­ways been drawn to na­ture, es­pe­cially wild flow­ers, so he be­gan to cre­ate a gar­den there, fill­ing it with plants that thrive in the re­gion. ‘These gar­den plants didn’t speak to me as much as the wild flow­ers I had seen as a child, but I learned to love them,’ he says. ‘I be­came a gar­dener, and now I make gar­dens for other peo­ple, too.’

But lovely though his city gar­den is, um­berto’s real pas­sion is for the gar­den he has made in the coun­try­side south of Tang­ier. Twenty years ago, he went for a long walk along this stretch of coast, climb­ing the stony hill­side to look back down at the mag­nif­i­cent seascape. ‘I fell asleep un­der a fig tree and woke up know­ing that I had to come and live here,’ he ex­plains. ‘I knew I had to build a gar­den here.’ so with the help of a Moroc­can friend, he set about try­ing to buy some land near the vil­lage of ro­huna, a near-im­pos­si­ble ven­ture due to baf­fling land di­vi­sions and an­cient tribal laws, lead­ing to ne­go­ti­a­tions with at least 20 dif­fer­ent par­ties. any other for­eigner would have given up at the first hurdle, but um­berto per­se­vered, de­ter­mined to make the project work – and even­tu­ally he won. Work­ing with a team of men from nearby vil­lages, um­berto started to carve a gar­den and a home out of the dusty hill­side. ‘For hun­dreds of years, this was a char­coal­mak­ing area, so all the trees had dis­ap­peared, the hills were bare and the soil was baked,’ says um­berto. ‘Peo­ple hadn’t given any­thing back to the soil, so we have had to trans­port hun­dreds of tons of top­soil and ma­nure.’ To­day, the gar­den is a par­adise of shady trees, tan­gled green­ery and jewel-like flow­ers that jos­tle to­gether on ter­races linked

by me­an­der­ing stone walls. The same stone has been used to make the mod­est house that um­berto lives in while he is here. Water, clearly a pre­cious re­source in this cli­mate, has been brought into the gar­den by means of a 90-me­tre-deep bore­hole. ‘Be­fore, the women in the vil­lage would have to walk five kilo­me­tres to the source to col­lect water – now they can come here to get it,’ says um­berto. ‘I wanted to give some­thing back to these peo­ple.’

um­berto’s vi­sion for the gar­den has been clear from the start. he wanted to fill it with the indige­nous Moroc­can plants that he could see dis­ap­pear­ing from land­scapes blighted by de­vel­op­ment. ‘When I first came to Morocco, plants and bulbs such as the wild Iris tin­gi­tana (Tan­ge­rian iris) were ev­ery­where. You had to go only a few miles out of the city to see great fields of it. I was smit­ten.’ But then con­struc­tion be­gan to spread and great swathes of plants were de­stroyed. um­berto’s mis­sion was to save these irises and other plants from dis­ap­pear­ing al­to­gether, so he started vis­it­ing the build­ing sites, lit­er­ally snatch­ing the bulbs from un­der­neath the bull­doz­ers and re­plant­ing them in his gar­den.

now, in the outer reaches of his gar­den, the Tan­ge­rian iris has found a safe haven. With stat­uesque pur­ple-blue flow­ers

ap­pear­ing in Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary, it is one of six Moroc­can irises that can be found here, flow­er­ing in suc­ces­sion through­out the year. an­other iris, the I. juncea var.

nu­midica, was al­most ex­tinct when um­berto spot­ted it grow­ing by the side of the road. ‘I had been look­ing for it for years and there it was, al­most lost in the mid­dle of some road­works.’ In ad­di­tion to irises, thou­sands more Moroc­can species can be found in um­berto’s liv­ing mu­seum of plants – from nar­cissi and frit­il­lar­ies to meadow saf­fron. on the ter­races near the house, he has al­lowed him­self to wan­der from his orig­i­nal plan, plant­ing non-indige­nous species with the help of Bel­gian botanist Bernard dogi­mont. clus­ters of roses, spiky agaves and lilies, among hun­dreds of other plants, crowd the paths, a ver­dant jun­gle to get lost in. a con­sum­mate sto­ry­teller, um­berto has wo­ven tales around all the ter­races: there are english, Ital­ian, Por­tuguese and egyp­tian gar­dens – each at­trib­uted to an imag­i­nary char­ac­ter. ‘The english­man, for ex­am­ple, is a melan­choly drunk,’ says um­berto. ‘I like tak­ing a piece of re­al­ity and creat­ing a fic­tion around it. By giv­ing each part of the gar­den a story, it sud­denly has a his­tory – a fic­tional his­tory, yes, but that doesn’t mat­ter. I for­get that it’s made up.’

as we wan­der round the gar­den af­ter the rain­storm, ev­ery­thing is shiny and re­vived. um­berto waves his arms around, ex­claim­ing with glee, and tells us sto­ries about his beloved plants. a‘ gar­den should be made with hon­esty and with love,’ he con­cludes. ‘For me, a gar­den is all about the plants and the peo­ple, more than it is about de­sign and aes­thet­ics. It is real.’

clock­wise, from left a path leads through the shadow gar­den, with eu­phor­bia in­gens on ei­ther side; cos­mos and dahlias cre­ate a haze of colour; the steeply slop­ing gar­den has been carved into a se­ries of ter­races and path­ways; the res­cued iris fil­i­fo­lia – one of the many threat­ened lo­cal species re­planted in the gar­den; the main stone path­way

from left old trees with sculp­tural trunks pro­vide shade in warm weather; eu­phor­bia in­gens is found through­out; lo­cally made ter­ra­cotta pots and sculp­tural plants cre­ate fo­cal points and frame views through­out the gar­den

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