Reflections on my research internship in the High Atlas

Fresh tea prepared with thyme and oregano from the Imegdal nursery

By Meghan Henshaw, MSc Ethnobotany Candidate, University of Kent

17 June 2019

Over the past decade a plethora of ethnobotany students from the University of Kent have worked with the Global Diversity Foundation (GDF) on a multitude of projects. Following in their footsteps I left England last month and arrived in Marrakech. Eager to begin my fieldwork intending to examine how the quality and identification of lavender and thyme is established throughout the commodity chain in Morocco, I first travelled to the High Atlas Mountains. There, I was able to interview harvesters, middlemen and vendors all currently involved in the trade of medicinal plants. I witnessed firsthand the deep plant knowledge that is so crucial to Moroccan culture.

The village of Igherm and the house of Hamid —manager of the local community nursery—became not only the base for my fieldwork, but it is also where I was warmly welcomed into the rhythms of rural life. The nearby community nursery allowed me to utilize the incredible living resources established there. Each plant was clearly labelled with its name printed in latin binomial, English, French, Arabic and Tashelhit, which offered me a dynamic way to familiarize myself with the species that grow in the area. This nursery provides plants free of charge to the surrounding villages thus supporting the crucial repopulation of medicinal plants so integral to life in the area.

Flourishing lavender plants at the Imegdal nursery

Hiking into the surrounding mountains gave me the opportunity to see both thyme and lavender, predominantly Lavandula maroccana Murb. and Lavandula dentata L., growing wild.  The L. maroccana Murb. was in full flower while the L. dentata L. was just starting to bloom. Bearing longer stems, greener leaves and more developed flowers, the lavender plants in protected areas with more access to water were obviously at an advantage. Thymus spp. plants were also visible but no flowers were present; the delayed bloom was explained to be the result of a lack of rain.

Over the course of the following few days, I met numerous times with the cooperative Temghareenn, originally formed in 2018 by a group of women who baked cookies and harvested plants together. The group gathers daily at the home of one of the members and it was there my translator and I were warmly greeted by the eight women that form the nexus of the cooperative. We discussed medicinal plants, the history of the cooperative and their desires for the future. I also had the opportunity to interview the women about the origins of their medicinal plant knowledge and local uses of lavender and thyme for various ailments. I was able to purchase numerous plant samples that were to be used in my fieldwork quality exercises and later analyzed in the lab at Cadi Ayyad University in Marrakech. Spending a day plucking aromatic L. dentata L. blossoms under the bright Moroccan sun and rocky hills around Imegdal was definitely a highlight of my time in the mountains.

L, freshly harvested Lavandula dentata L.; R, processing lavender with the women’s cooperative, Temghareenn

A tour of the local essential oil distillation factory in Douar El Makhzan, about 20km from Igherm, offered another glimpse into the regional processing of medicinal plants. It was also an opportunity to learn about the structure of yet another cooperative comprising over 75 community members. I was able to see bags of dried aromatic plants that awaited distillation in batches of 100kg at a time, as well as a retail shop offering a wide selection of essential oils, dried herbs and hydrosols all made on site.

In just a short time, I have had so many opportunities to learn from the surrounding environment, the mountain communities and from the knowledge holders of the rich tradition of Moroccan herbalism.  That knowledge has allowed me to investigate one of my primary research questions which is: does local, practical knowledge complement or contradict scientific ways of evaluating lavender and thyme throughout the supply chain? Interviews, participant observation and lab assessments of lavender and thyme samples gathered in the field and bought at markets formed the crux of my project and while reviewing the initial fieldwork results, a few observations have become apparent. First, region of origin serves as an important indicator of quality throughout the supply chain but especially at the herbalist/vendor level. Second, amongst those interviewed, medicinal plants from the mountains are typically seen as producing stronger medicine and are preferred over the same plants under cultivation. ‘Fassiya’, which is usually Lavandula angustifolia Mill.2 and cultivated in Northern Morocco near the city of Fez, is an exception to this. 57% of respondents (24 out of 42) cited fassiya as producing the strongest medicine and distillation in the lab showed that it had the highest essential oil yield out of all of the samples evaluated. High essential oil content is commonly linked to medicinal activity so fassiya’s reputation as being the strongest medicine demonstrates an example of where practical, local knowledge agrees with scientific analysis. Finally, organoleptics—or using one’s senses to evaluate the taste, smell or appearance of an item—is a key tool used to estimate the age of the plant material, with the newest plants being the most desirable. These findings are just a few of the initial outcomes of my research along with GDF, MBLA and the various communities in Morocco I interacted with throughout my fieldwork. This work offers perspective on both traditional and scientific ways of knowing and how ethnographic interviews can complement laboratory analysis.

Hydrosols produced by members of the Agoundis cooperative at a local essential oil factory
Sweet fashion even while harvesting in the High Atlas!
Dried Lavandula dentata for sale in Marrakech
Scale used by members of Temghareenn cooperative to measure grain and herbs
Thyme-infused oil

2 Bellakhdar, J. (1997). La pharmacopée marocaine traditionelle: médecine arabe ancienne et savoirs populaires. Ibis Press. P.171