The cobalt blue walls of Yves Saint Laurent’s Jardin Majorelle are synonymous with Marrakesh and the tulips of Keukenhof with the Netherlands, but who are the gardeners behind them? Ellen Millard discovers the green-fingered mavericks who sowed the seeds of the world’s botanical masterpieces
Fondly known as the Red City in homage to its terracotta walls, Marrakesh is, in fact, a metropolis of myriad colours, where riads are peppered with mosaic tiles and market stalls piled high with rainbow displays of spices, crockery and lanterns. But the biggest colour wheel of them all lies in the Jardin Majorelle, a garden of hypnotic hues first built in the 1920s by French artist Jacques Majorelle.
It took the painter 40 years to perfect his most complex masterpiece; during this time he planted more than 300 species of plants, decorating the space with greenery from five continents and dyeing the walls in mesmerising shades of blue and yellow. It was opened to the public in 1947 and, following Majorelle’s death, was acquired by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé, who sought to preserve the artist’s vision. Now, the space is as much associated with the late fashion designer as it is with its original creator, so much so that the urn in which Saint Laurent’s ashes were kept is on display in the garden and the ashes themselves were scattered there.
But while Majorelle was the original mastermind behind the botanical beauty and Saint Laurent its saviour, the garden as we know it today was crafted by the nimble green fingers of another creative. In 1998, the fashion designer commissioned Abderrazak Benchaâbane to restore the space to its former glory, providing the Latin names for each of the plants and adding a further 25 species to the mix in a process that took a decade to complete.
“I realised that it was not a catalogue of plants that the garden needed, but a real restoration or even a rescue and a resurrection,” Benchaâbane tells me. “At that time, the garden was declining and suffering from a great lack of maintenance and organisation. I obtained carte blanche and the adventure lasted 10 years.”
A childhood spent exploring the public gardens of Marrakesh stood Benchaâbane in good stead when he embarked on a career refining the great outdoors. He grew up watching his father working in the fields and his mother cultivating their patio garden, occasionally helping by weeding or picking fruit and vegetables, and when he went to university, he spent his spare time working in the institute’s botanical garden.
His time at the Jardin Majorelle led him to develop a career in perfumery, spurred on by Saint Laurent, who commissioned him to create a fragrance for the garden’s gift shop. Naturally, he speaks fondly of the designer. “After the garden was closed to the public, he would pass long hours walking and meditating in his garden, listening to the songs of the birds, which returned every night to sleep on the branches of the trees,” the ethnobotanist recalls. “His taste and sense of colour have profoundly marked the aesthetics of the garden, without ever altering the design of its creator, Jacques Majorelle.”
It’s no secret that design and botany have long gone hand in hand, and the significance of the world's urban landscapes nurturing the environment is not lost on Andrew Grant, director and founder of landscape architecture firm Grant Associates, and the mastermind behind Singapore’s striking Gardens by the Bay project.
“In the context of climate change, mass urbanisation, biodiversity loss and depletion of resources, including food and water, we see it as our duty and opportunity to promote more landscape-led projects, such as Gardens by the Bay, across the world,” he tells me.
Those who haven’t heard of Gardens by the Bay will no doubt recognise it by the lofty Supertrees that tower over the park, the highest sitting tall at 50 metres. These vertical gardens mimic photosynthesis through solar energy and collect rainwater for irrigation, acting as a tool for the rest of the garden. The space is split into three – Bay Central, Bay East and Bay South – and then divided into a children’s garden, a flower dome, a horticultural garden and a cloud forest.
“We thoroughly researched the cultural agenda and history of Singapore before coming up with the orchid as the key reference point. It is a cosmopolitan species, but is also the national flower and resonates deeply with Singaporeans,” Grant explains of the inspiration behind the design.
As Singapore champions the orchid, other cities from around the world fly the flag for their nation’s favoured bloom, too. The Keukenhof gardens in the Netherlands, for instance, is famed for its annual rainbow display of tulips, first devised by landscape architect Jan David Zocher, who was commissioned by the garden's owners to show off the nation’s extensive collection of flowers. Now, it is famous for the 800 different species of tulips which it grows, and visitors flock to see the colourful exhibit each year.
For Benchaâbane, orange blossom reigns as the floral champion – unsurprising, given that it lines the gardens and streets of Marrakesh. “There is all the sunshine in the scent of the orange blossom,” he says. “Its nectar has a tonic: soothing, sweet and an intoxicating wake.”
No longer working at the Jardin Majorelle, Benchaâbane instead dedicates his time to the Musée de la Palmeraie, home to calligraphy and artwork chosen by the gardener himself and, of course, a collection of themed gardens that house spectacular displays of roses, aquatic plants and cactus. A lifetime under Morocco’s intense sun has clearly served the 58-year-old well and, when he speaks of his craft, it’s clear that retirement won’t be on the cards any time soon.
“The botanist is in dialogue with plants and nature,” he says. “Every day he tries to break through the secret life of plants and marvel at nature and creation. The greatest gift that gardens and plants offer is their ability to push us to wonder.”