Cactus plants of Morocco.

The country of Morocco at the westernmost point of Africa, has a diverse and variable climate. Expanding across it’s entirety, you can find a multitude of environments; from the desert plains of the Sahara to lush & rocky regions throughout the Atlas Mountains.
Average temperatures and rain fall are different from region to region, but it is safe to describe the climate as largely tropical. To the North, Morocco meets the mediterranean sea and spans across to meet the Atlantic ocean to the west. Amongst locals, Morocco is often referred to as “the place where Europe and Africa kiss”.

In the Southeast of Morocco lays the Sahara, where the climate becomes more arid and the population less dense. Close to the Algerian borders, the summers are long and hot. The intense heat and lack of rain or moisture are especially present in the lowland areas which lie east of the Atlas mountain range. This is due to the shadow which is cast by the mountains.

It is estimated that 95% of the population live in the Northern and Western regions, preferring the mediterranean and tropical climates (as well as the opportunities for work and study) in the capital cities. The capital city is Rabat, but this is not the largest city. Casablanca is the largest city, and this is due to it’s very active main port; providing plenty of industry. Other densely populated cities include Fes, Meknes, Tangier & Marrakech; with a recorded population of over 500,000 residents.

In the mountainous regions of the Rif, Middle and High Atlas, there exists a multitude of climates and sufficient moisture for the growth of a variety of plant life. In the humid high elevations exists oak trees, moss, junipers and Atlantic fir. In the valleys where there is more rainfall and fertile soils, you can find incredible, lush areas of forestation.
In the arid regions of the Sahara, fertile grounds are rare. The distinct lack of moisture does not allow for much life, but that is not to say it doesn’t exist. Sporadically dotted around the Sahara are many awe inspiring Oases, comprising of beautiful natural palm trees and cactus plants.

The Cactus plant is a wonder in itself. Known locally as “Su’bar”, meaning enduring; the plant lives up to it’s name. Cacti are largely a form of succulent, meaning they have thickened, fleshy parts adapted to store water. As well as being able to survive with little to no rainfall or precipitation, the cactus can equally survive other variable climates. In the Sahara, the day temperatures can be as much as 60 degrees celsius, dropping significantly in the night to as low as 3 degrees. This changeable environment promotes the versatility of cacti; during photosynthesis, they intake and store CO2 at night when the air is cool and more humid. The plants then close the minute openings in their trunks (stomata) during the day to avoid water loss. In the abundant sunlight of the day, they convert the compound they made in the night into regular sugars. All plants and trees practice this process, but the cactus is different in that this method of transpiration at night dramatically reduces water loss.
A cactus sustains almost all of it’s collected water, even at peak summer temperatures and in fact, the only water which is lost is the water which is converted to plant growth and mass. Of course, cacti does have it’s limitations & any temperature below -10 degrees celsius will be lethal to both young and old plants.

Cacti have an incredible life span, and most will live for 150 to 200 years. Their sharp spines serve them in several ways and are attributed to their survival; they are actually adapted leaves and NOT (as they are commonly mistaken) thorns. The spines not only provide shade and collect moisture from the air when available, but they also defend the cactus plant against predators (herbivores).

Many Cactus plants flower, but this does not happen until late in their life span. Most Cacti will not flower in the Sahara until they are already 50 to 70 years old, but when they flower they continue to do so every year for the rest of their lives. Cactus flowers are pollinated like most plants, by insects, birds and bats. No species of cacti are renowned for being wind-pollinated, but self-pollination does occur in a few species. Bees are the most common pollinator of cacti, and in the Sahara desert this is certainly true. Desert bees and cacti are hugely dependant on one another.

The cultivation of cacti is having a positive impact on the Moroccan economy, thanks to it’s medicinal and cosmetic properties. It is reported that  women in the Sbouya hamlet near Sidi Ifni in the south of Morocco are harvesting the fruit of the prickly pear cactus which is native to these parts. In this previously poverty stricken area, the women have largely missed out on a formal education and in many cases are illiterate; which minimises job prospects. For these women, the harvesting of the cacti provides more wealth that they might have ever imagined obtaining.
It has inspired women in other areas of Morocco to follow suit and many have started to look at the things that grow in abundance (such as argan and saffron) in their local vicinity, to convert the available resources into a profitable business.

Cacti only require a small space, as well as minimal water and human attention. They are extensively cultivated in areas of the world with a hot climate, not only for their rare and vibrant flowers but also for economic purposes. Growing in various, curious forms, cacti can bear tubular or rotate flowers, and also delicious fruit in the form of the prickly pear. They do grow in the wild; but are now also protected in conservatories and nurseries.

In Marrakech, a variety of cactus plants are available for purchase around the area of the Jemaa el Fna. In some cases, you might find an individual trader selling cuttings or unearthed cacti for a minimal fee. These will survive out of the soil for as long as 3 months, and can be re-planted as ornaments in the home.

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