photo by John Flak

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Why I love phlox, Majorelle blue, and other tales from a Marrakech Garden

July 14, 2010

Tags: majorelle blue, marrkech, majorelle garden, yves st laurent, phlox, child play, roof top gardens, framingham ma, philadelphia, french paint shops

I’ve always had a love affair with phlox. Wherever I’ve lived—Framingham, Massachusetts; Durham, North Carolina; Philadelphia and its suburbs--wherever I’ve had a garden or just a pot of dirt on a step, I’ve insisted on planting a clump of the tall fragrant, flowers. I never minded that the leaves are easily covered with powdery mildew in the moist summers. Above the discolored leaves, the small flowers soar, pinks to purples, whites with purple centers, sometimes oranges or even reds, clumped together to form large flower heads.



But this winter was particularly harsh with my roof top garden. Only a few stalks have appeared, and only a few flowers at the ends. Still I cup my hands around the delicate flowers and breathe deeply. Like Proust discovered with his beloved Madeleines, the flowers transport me back to my jeunesse—that time called childhood. Long ago, I discovered that the tiny flowers could be removed intact and still leave dozens more for the next fantasy. Then, with a needle that my mother had threaded, I strung the blossoms to make the most wondrous things—necklaces, a crown, the flowing end of a fairy wand.

But recently I’ve been introduced to another garden pleasure. Marrakech guards the famous Majorelle Garden that Yves St Laurent rescued in the 80’s, made his home, and eventually chose as the place to scatter his ashes. The garden was originally designed in the 20’s by art deco painter, Jacques Majorelle, who concocted the most extraordinary shade of cobalt blue.



In Marrakech, the blue is paired with red, a shade of green and another shade of yellow. Because the climate is arid, succulents and palms abound in painted pots that line the walkways. But even there, turtles crowd around a pool, and people rest in the shade, sheltered from the Moroccan sun.

I was so moved by this blue—I can say it no more emphatically—that I had to discover how to own it for myself. I bought a small souvenir in the color to take home. After that first trip, my husband and I visited French paint shops with computers that guaranteed to reproduce ANY color in the world. The blue was a mystery.

Another man, who actually owned a paint factory, bragged that he could do a Majorelle blue without any trouble. The result was a huge pot, large enough to hold a grown tree, that he kept throwing red and blue into, mixing and stirring, and finally sweating and swearing (in French, of course), because he could NOT get the color right.

We had to go back to the gardens. On my second trip, I spotted a work shed tucked away behind a grove of bamboo. And behind the shed, were empty pots of Majorelle blue. And on the pots, as any detective would surely discover, in tiny writing, half in Arabic script and, thankfully, half in French, was the address. Majorelle blue. Devoid of white, that was the secret, mixed with a mysterious base that produced the color.

The shopkeeper promised to send our just-heavy-enough quart to France (because taking it on the plane, was, of course, impossible). And sure enough, two weeks later, opened and resealed, dented and scratched, our blue arrived.

I stole some to bring home to my garden in Philadelphia. Now I guard the small amount that remains because I’ve painted several pots and keep just enough for touchups. In the light or in the shade, the color excites just as much as a small flower that once called forth the fairies.