Monday, December 29, 2014

The plane tree

The story goes that in the beginning of the 2000s, a cargo ship carrying exotic birds was passing through the Istanbul Strait-the Bhosphorus, or it could be a long haul cargo truck crossing the first suspended bridge, when some of the birds got away from their cages. They settled in Arnavutköy, one of the villages along the Bhosphorus. A few other villages have claimed to have the birds also but I personally know that they live in the big plane trees up the hill in Arnavutköy.

                              Without a telephoto lens it was not possible to capture well focused pictures of the birds.

The birds are a type of parakeet that has light green plumage. Based on their coloring they must be members of the parrot genus Psittacula or Afro-Asian Ringnecked parakeets as they are commonly known. Their shrill tropical calls can be heard when we pass under the trees. They fly in groups and we have sighted 12 to 15 of them flying together. The parakeets have made their homes in these trees.

                                              Plane trees in Arnavutköy in the fall

I didn’t live in Istanbul as a child. From time to time we would visit the city and I remember how I used to enjoy riding along the avenue between Ortaköy and Eminönü with plane trees on either side. There are over 600 trees and they have been given identification plaques by the Beşiktaş municipality. They are closely watched for any signs of weakening or disease and in 2012 some of them needed to be brought down due to a fungus. Exhaust fumes and de-icing salts were blamed for the calamity. Their habit of shedding bark allows plane trees to cast off particulate pollutants but most of the diseased trees in Beşiktaş were old. Some of them were over a hundred years old. Younger trees were planted in their place.

Platanus is a genus comprising a small number of tree species native to the northern hemisphere. They are the sole living members of the family Platanaceae. They are commonly called plane trees. The most known plane trees are occidental plane trees of Northern America (Platanus occidentalis), the oriental plane tree (Platanus orientalis) which is native to Southeast Europe from the Balkans to Iran and the hybrid planes called the London plane tree (Platanus × acerifolia) which is a group of hybrids derived from crosses between P. occidentalis and P.orientalis. Planes seen in London belong to this cross the first of which is thought to have been planted in England from about 1680. Plane trees have often been planted in urban environments because they can withstand poor soil conditions and pollution. All members of Platanus are tall, reaching 30 to 50 meters in height. They provide good shade.

Their flowers are reduced and are borne in balls. Male and female flowers are separate, but they are borne on the same plant. The number of heads in one cluster (inflorescence) is indicative of the species. P. occidentalis have 1-2 fruits per stem. Their leaves have 3-5 lobes and the lobe is wider than long. London planes have 2-4 fruit and the leaves have 5 lobes. The lobe is as wide as long.      P. orientalis on the other hand, can have the most fruit, 2-6 on a stem and the leaves have 5-7 lobes. The lobes are always longer than wide.

Plane trees are wind-pollinated. Male flower-heads fall off after shedding their pollen. After being pollinated, the female flowers become achenes-a seed like fruit that contains the seed-that form an aggregate, an assembled ball. The ball is typically 2.5–4 cm in diameter and contains several hundred achenes, each of which has a single seed. There is also a tuft of many thin stiff yellow-green bristle fibers attached to the base of each achene. These bristles help in wind dispersion of the fruits as in the dandelion.

We find London planes and Oriental planes in Istanbul. The ones that interest me most are the Oriental plane trees. The species name derives from its historical distribution eastward from the Balkans and following Greek usage it is called platane or related names in continental Europe. It was equally famous to the Iranian-speaking world and from Turkey to India it is called chinar, chenar or related names derived from the Persian name. The native range is Eurasia from the Balkans to at least as far east as Iran. P. orientalis has been cultivated in India.

                                  Oriental plane tree branches and fruit in the fall of 2013 in Istanbul

Just like the plane trees of Istanbul there is many a storied plane tree in Anatolia. Almighty is the adjective most often used for describing big old chinar trees and sitting under them is akin to worshipping.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Kokina, an Istanbul tradition

In Istanbul the Roma (who used to be called Gypsies) traditionally sell flowers from their street corner stands. One of the things they bring in the month of December is kokina. Kokina is not a natural plant but a combination of two plants. The Roma gather the plants from the woodlands and hills outside the city and prepare the kokina at home. Others buy it from them to sell in the wealthier parts of the city. I am told that the making and selling of kokina is a tradition passed down from the Rum (Roman from the East Roman Empire, in other words the Byzantium) who are the Turkish Greeks who made up a large number of the inhabitants of Constantinople, later Istanbul, until the mandatory population exchange took place between Turkey and Greece at the end of the First World War. Some of them continued to live in the city until the 1970s before most of them finally moved to Greece. Presumably, the name kokina comes from kokino, the Greek word for red.

The tradition of making kokina continues in Istanbul. Kokina is created by putting together two plants, Ruscus aculeatus and Smilax excelsa.

                                                   Berry of Ruscus aculeatus Photograph: Esra Selamoğlu

                                                              Berries of Smilax excelsa    Photograph: Zeynel Cebeci

Ruscus aculeatus belongs to a subfamily of the Asparagaceae family of plants. Most used common names for it are Butcher's Broom, Kneeholy or Knee Holly (and its Turkish names are tavşan memesi and ölmezdiken). R. Aculeatus is a low growing, densely branching evergreen Eurasian shrub. It grows up to 80 cm, hence the name knee holly, and spreads to 100 cm. It is a hardy plant with flat shoots which are known as cladodes that give the appearance of stiff, spine-tipped leaves. These are actually flattened stems that function as leaves. Flowering period can be from January to April and small whitish flowers with a hint of a pastel mauve color are borne singly in the center, on the underside of the cladodes. The female flowers then produce a single red berry which is the fruit of the R. aculeatus. Its seeds are bird-distributed, but the plant also spreads by means of rhizomes.

Rhizome means a "mass of roots" and it is a modified subterranean stem of a plant that is usually found underground, often sending out roots and shoots from its nodes. The rhizome also retains the ability to grow new shoots upwards. We are all familiar with ginger or ginger root which is the rhizome of the plant Zingiber officinale.


The second plant needed to make kokina is Smilax in the Smilacaceae family. Its red berries come in clusters and with red cordonnet thread one or two of these clusters are tied together to the tips of the R. aculeatus branches. It is safe to assume that these two plants grow in the same natural environments around Istanbul- in moist yet well drained woodlands and hedgegrows.

Kokina is sold in bouquets of six branches.

                   Kokina with the berry of Ruscus aculeatus still attached.    Photograph: Esra Üstündağ Selamoğlu

Sarsaparilla is a name commonly used for plants of the genus Smilax that belong to the Smilacaceae family. It is a Spanish word-zarza or sarsa from Arabic meaning a prickly shrub and parra from Spanish meaning a climbing plant.

There are two sarsaparilla-two species of Smilax, S. excelsa and S. aspera that grow in Turkey. The fruit of Similax aspera is round berries that grow in clusters. The berries ripen in autumn, initially rich red they later turn black. They are good bird food.

Smilax excelsa which is also called Anatolian Sarsaparilla must be the smilax used in the making of kokina. S. excelsa is native to South Eastern Europe and the Turkish peninsula or Asia Minor. The plant is a tall perennial climbing vine. It is evergreen to deciduous in colder areas and can climb up to 15-20 m high.

The inflorescence, that is groups of flowers of S. excelsa are greenish yellow and they grow in the shape of umbels, meaning, a number of flowers grow on short flower stalks that spread from a common point. They are likened to the stretcher rods of umbrellas. The groups of flowers ripen to about 1cm globular berries that come in clusters and turn bright red when they ripen.

The tough elliptical leaves are 4-11 cm long, 3-10 cm wide and they are shining green. The base where the leaf attaches to the stem is heart-shaped. The leaves are semi woody with prominent veins and have sharp prickles on their undersides. In the Black Sea region of Turkey the leaves of  S. excelsa are known to be widely used in the daily diet of the people of the area and in folk medicine for their medicinal properties. In some studies, antioxidant tests have shown the leaves to be a significant natural antioxidant source.

Its root is a rhizome system like that of R. aculeatus. Despite the fact that R. aculeatus is widely planted in gardens, and has spread as a garden escape in many areas outside its native range, apparently, in Turkey the subterranean parts of the plant are gathered extensively and exported which poses a threat for extinction. It would be a sad day if, indeed, R. aculeatus were not available in the future to make kokina in Istanbul.

It is a very interesting fact that neither the berries of the smilax nor the stems of the holly wilt for a long long time. Istanbulites buy them around mid-December and keep them for months. Once the kokina come out everybody is in the mood for festive celebrations.

                                                           Saadet sells flowers in Ulus, in Istanbul

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Rosa banksiae

Until I came across the little yellow blossoms in Carmel, California in 2008, I had not thought about this noble flower. I found it in the garden of a yellow painted house just like the ones I remember seeing when I was a little girl. Somehow, this flower used to have more of an effect on me than other climbing roses. It spurred my imagination, made me believe that the families who owned these pretty flowers were happy and prosperous.

I’m learning that Rosa banksiae, common names Lady Banks' rose, Lady Banksia rose or just Banks' rose, belongs to the rose family and it is native to China where it grows at altitudes of 500–2,200 m. It has likely been grown in China for hundreds of years. It was introduced to Europe in the 19th century. The rose is named after Lady Banks, the wife of the British botanist Sir Joseph Banks.

Rosa banksiae is a shrubby plant growing to 6 m tall. There are two varieties; Rosa banksiae var. banksiae with semi-double or double flowers and Rosa banksiae var. normalis with single flowers that have five petals. This is the natural wild form of the species.

The flowers are small, 1.5-2.5 cm diameter, white or pale yellow. It is amongst the earliest flowering of all roses, flowers usually appearing during May in the northern hemisphere. The bush blooms once and the flowers last for about 4 weeks. If my memory serves me right, I do remember a sweet smell, perhaps somewhat similar to violets as some web sites suggest. It is double form which may lead to it having little fragrance most of the time.

The plant may bear some prickles up to 5mm long but unlike other roses it is practically thornless. The leaves are evergreen with three to five serrated margined leaflets 2-5 cm long. This rose is generally much too large for a small garden, however, it can vigorously cover an outlying structure or a tall tree and provide spectacular spring displays. Lady Banksia rose is very long-lived.

Wikipedia provides information on a Guinness record about the world's largest Lady Banksia white rosebush. A young Scottish bride in Tombstone, Arizona received a wooden crate from her family in Scotland with a number of garden plants in it. In 1885 Mary Gee and her friend, Amelia Adamson, planted the rose that came in the trunk in the patio of the Cochise House now known as the Rose Tree Inn Museum, where they were boarders. No one expected the rose to live in the dry climate and poor soil. The Lady Banksia rose flourished and is now thought to be the world’s largest and America’s oldest known rose bush. It covers 740 m2 of the roof on the inn, and has a 3.7 m circumference trunk. Admission is charged to see it.

I believe, Lady Banks Yellow is one of the great classic roses.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Miniature carnation

Miniature carnations or spray carnations used to be my favorite flower. I say ‘used to’ for they bring to mind the bigger carnations in the genus Dianthus and this is not a good thing. I don’t care for the bigger carnations simply because they are always tempered with. They are given unnatural colors, made bigger or placed in bouquets with flowers that do not go well together. They are like the neon signs of the old, they have been trivialized and overused.

The botanical name for mini carnations is Dianthus caryophyllus nana. I have not been able to figure out what nana stands for and caryophyllus must be two words put together: Karyo-‘clove tree’ and phyllon-‘leaf’. Dianthus, on the other hand, comes from the Greek words di-‘of Zeus’ and anthos-‘flower’.

The family name is Caryophyllaceae. The word carnation is even more complicated to explain. “Some scholars believe that it comes from "coronation" or "corone" (flower garlands), as it was one of the flowers used in Greek ceremonial crowns. Others think the name stems from the Latin "caro" (genitive "carnis") (flesh), which refers to the original colour of the flower, or incarnatio (incarnation), which refers to the incarnation of God made flesh” (

Carnation is thought to be native to the Mediterranean, however, due to extensive cultivation over thousands of years no one is sure any more about the exact region. Carnation has no scent perhaps also due to cultivation. Previously, their scent must have been likened to that of cloves which are the flower buds of the Syzygium aromaticum tree in the Myrtaceae family native to the Maluku Islands in Indonesia. Cloves are aromatic and they are used as spice.

I am still very partial to mini carnations. I like the high calyx presenting the flower like the hand holding a trophy. I like the size of the plant.

There are generally four or more flowers per stem and the florets are about three cm in diameter. I love the tone variations and the shadows among their petals.


The flowers or the florets, that is the small or reduced flowers are double form or double flowered. Double flowered describes varieties of flowers with extra petals. Like the larger carnations the mini ones are also double flowered with many ruffled petals. Double flowered are popular varieties of many commercial flowers such as roses, impatients and carnations.

I’m learning that having double flowers is one of the first mutations in plants to have been noted thousands of years ago. “Many double flower varieties have no reproductive organs and as a result, they are sexually sterile and must be propagated through cuttings. Environmental agencies ask gardeners not to plant double flowered species as they have little or no wildlife value as access to the nectar is typically blocked by the mutation” (

Not all is negative. Mini carnations have kept their faint yet wonderful smell that takes me back to my childhood.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014


Ranunculus is a large genus of about 600 species of plants in the Ranunculaceae family. Members of the genus include the buttercups and many other plants which I’m not familiar with.

Ranunculus asiaticus

Ranunculus asiaticus or Persian buttercup is recognized more by its scientific genus name Ranunculus. It is a tuberous and herbaceous perennial plant growing to 45 cm, with simple or branched stems. The leaves and the stems are downy. Ranunculus likes cooler weather and thus flowers in spring to early summer. A whorl of petals form three to ten cm diameter, the flowers come in yellow, white, red, orange, pink, purple, violet or mixed colors.

This flower is native to the eastern Mediterranean region, southwestern Asia and northeastern Africa. We learn that it is a protected plant in some places, including Israel.

In my teens, when I came home to Aydın (Turkey) from boarding school during breaks, I used to accompany my mother to the ‘Tuesday’ market, the farmers market set up on Tuesdays for fruits and vegetables. In the spring, the green grocer we favored would have ranunculus gathered from the mountains close by. These would be smaller than the ones that are sold at flower shops and their whorls were tighter. I think they were prettier like that.

In Turkish ranunculus is called ‘erengül’.


                                                                         Photograph: Gülçin Kori

Ranunculus repens

We call this buttercup ‘wedding flower’ in Turkish. The choice of name must have something to do with the fact that it is a jolly looking little plant; its petals are bright canary yellow and highly lustrous.

The flowers have a two cm diameter and five petals. Both the stems and the leaves are downy.

       April in Istanbul 

My favorite buttercup Ranunculus repens or creeping buttercup by its common name, is native to Europe, Asia and northwestern Africa.

I did not know that most buttercups, including R. repens are poisonous. My parents must have known something about it because we never gathered buttercups. When a plant in the Ranunculaceae, the buttercup family, is wounded it releases a substance called ranunculin which in turn brakes down into glucose and protoanemonin, a toxin which causes itches, rashes or blistering on contact with skin. Contact with the sap of the plant can cause skin blistering and due to their acrid taste and blistering of the mouth livestock avoid eating them.

Creeping buttercup grows in fields and pastures. Buttercups usually flower in the spring, but these lovely flowers may be found throughout the summer and early fall.

                            A variety of buttercup with four non-lustrous petals blooming in October in Istanbul.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The European nettle tree

I find it interesting that from a young age we have an affinity for certain aspects of life, such as getting to know what nature can provide us with. When I started writing about the plants I remembered from back when I was little, I also wandered about the plants people close to me dreamed of.

My husband Henri, together with the neighborhood children lived an adventurous life on his street in Istanbul in the early 1960s. He told me about the explosive toy gun they made with tree branches. They called it ‘patlangıç’. Patla means ‘(to) explode’ and adding the nominal forming suffix ‘gıç’ makes the word patlangıç meaning ‘exploder’ in Turkish. This was a word formed and used solely for the toy created.

Using nettle tree berries as ammunition they fought imaginary wars. There was no enemy per se. The fun was in the liberating power of the instrument at hand, in the explosion created. The territory they roamed to get their supplies extended as far as half a kilometer or more from home.

The berries were still green and easy to bite into Henri remembers. This tells us that it was still summer when he played with them because in the fall berries become dry and turn deep purple in color and that is when school starts.


Celtis australis, commonly known as the European nettle tree is a deciduous tree that can grow 20 or 25 meters in height. It is endemic to southern Europe, North Africa, and Asia Minor. This tree previously grouped with elm trees is now classified under the Cannabaceae family of plants. The Turkish name for the tree is çitlembik.

The bark is smooth and grey. The leaves are narrow and sharp-toothed, rugose-wrinkly above and tomentose-covered with densely matted woolly hairs below, 5–15 cm long and dark grey/green throughout the year, fading to a pale yellow before falling in autumn. The tomentose underside of the leaves have a velvety feel to touch. The flowers are small and green. The fruit is a small, dark-purple berry-like drupe, 1 cm wide which comes in clusters and which is popular with birds and other wildlife.

To build a patlangıç you needed to find the tree that provided the right branch which had the round soft core you could hallow out easily. From another tree came the branch to make the piston of the patlangıç in two parts. Half was carved as the narrow part that fit into the hallowed branch and the other half that formed the handle was left uncarved. Henri does not remember what trees these branches came from. The berries of the nettle tree were bitten in half. One half was placed in both ends of the hallowed part of the weapon. When the piston was driven in, with the air pressure that formed inside the half of the berry at the opposite end exploded out with a bang and this brought on shouts of success and satisfaction. ‘Boys will be boys’.

Here is a very crude drawing of patlangıç and its ammunition.

                                                                                  The tree in the middle is Celtis australis.

In those days, 11, 12 year old and early teenage boys played with patlangıç throughout Turkey.

                                                                                                   Henri Barki

Nettle tree in May 2013 in Istanbul

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The olive tree

If you don’t know the olive tree, there are hundreds of trees you might consider more beautiful. If you are lucky to know the olive closely, however, no other tree will mean all that much to you. The olive tree is a world onto its own. It defines the Mediterranean realm. It has such a long and significant history that its beginnings are woven into mythology. It is so essential that old trees are revered as wayside shrines in many coastal locations in the Mediterranean. For centuries the olive has been a symbol of peace, abundance and life itself.

                                          Old olive trees in Bodrum and Antalya, Turkey

The olive tree is one of oldest cultivated trees in the world. It is native to the western and southern coastal areas of Anatolia (Turkey) and the eastern Mediterranean Basin countries of Syria, Lebanon, Northern Iraq and Cyprus and it has been in existence for nearly 8000 years.

When the Assyrians discovered that oil could be pressed from its fruit they cultivated the olive shrub. The shrub evolved into a tree. The olive tree grows slowly and requires careful cultivation but it lasts for generations. In many places trees that are older than thousand years still exist and maybe even bear fruit. We are told that there are much older trees in existence.

Gradually the olive spread to nearby countries from where it originated. The Phoenicians carried the olive by trade to the Mediterranean shores of Africa and Southern Europe. As far back as 3000 BC, olives were grown commercially in Crete. They may have been the source of the wealth of the Minoan civilization. Olives have been found in Egyptian tombs from 2000 years BC. As the Romans extended their empire they brought the olive with them.

Today the major countries that grow the olive tree for its fruit and oil are Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey and Morocco. It is only in the past several hundred years that the olive has spread to North and South America, New Zealand and Australia.

Its scientific name Olea europaea meaning "oil from/of Europe", the olive is a species of small evergreen tree or shrub in the Oleaceae family. Its fruit, also called the olive (from Latin olivea), and its oil are of major agricultural importance in the Mediterranean region. The Oleaceae family includes species such as lilacs, jasmine, forsythia and the true ash trees-Fraxinus.

It is estimated that there are 800 million olive trees growing on Earth and around 500 different cultivars of olives. Humans have manipulated the olive tree for so many thousands of years that it is unclear what varieties came from which other varieties. Shrub-like "wild" olives still exist in the Middle East. Researchers are working with new gene mapping techniques to figure out the olive’s family tree.

The olive tree does not grow very high. The trunk widens as the tree ages and it is typically gnarled and twisted. The silvery green leaves are oblong and narrow. The small white flowers are borne in racemes from the axils of the leaves. This is to say, shoots appear from the axil, that is between the upper surface of the leafstalks and the stems from which they grow and all along the shoot which is also called the axis, flowers are borne. In a raceme the oldest flowers are towards the base and new flowers appear as the shoot grows.

                                                                                                    Photograph: Seyhun Ağar

The fruit of the olive is a droop 1-2.5 cm long and it contains one big woody seed. Olives can’t be just picked off the tree and eaten. They are intolerably bitter before they are cured through a long and elaborate process until they acquire their wonderful tastes that we love.

"Depending on the cultivar, the shape and texture of olives vary greatly from tiny spherical orbs to large, plump ovals. Their colors vary as well, but this has to do with how long they have been allowed to ripen on the trees, not with the cultivar: the fruit starts out a yellowish green, then during the many months of ripening on the tree, they slowly turn to green, then light brown, then a dark purplish and eventually black, though some varieties are green when considered ripe. The curing processes render olives edible at all the different stages of ripeness, thus giving us endless variety of color, texture and taste. When picking olives to make into oil however, the fruit must have reached the right level of ripeness to ensure good quality oil with a low level of acidity."(

The harvesting of olives is a slow, labor-intensive work usually done without use of any mechanical devices. Olives and especially table olives can be easily bruised and must be handled very gently. Harvesting of olives is almost always done by hand.

     An olive grove

Most olives today are harvested by shaking the boughs or the whole tree. However, olives that fall to the ground can result in poor quality oil. Another method of picking olives is standing on a ladder and "milking" the olives into a sack tied around the harvester's waist. A third method uses a device called an oli-net that wraps around the tree trunk and opens to form a catcher from which workers collect the fruit. Another method uses an electric tool, the oliviera, which has large tongs that spin around quickly, removing fruit from the tree. Sometimes, whole branches are sawed off trees which can help with the next production.

Olives are harvested in the autumn and winter in the northern hemisphere. Green olives are picked at the end of September to about the middle of November. Blond olives are picked from the middle of October to the end of November and black olives are collected from the middle of November to the end of January or early February. However, the time will vary in each country, and with the season and the cultivar.

Throughout centuries, the olive tree, its fruit and its oil have been lauded by story tellers, philosophers, poets, and writers. The olive is praised in religious texts. Noah sent out a pigeon to search for dry land after days of deluge and the pigeon came back with a branch from an olive tree by which Noah knew that the waters were receding. Homer (around 8th or 7th century BC) refers to olive oil as “liquid gold”. Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) explains, “….these black olives between the teeth. A taste older than meat, older than wine. A taste as old as cold water..."

In the land of the olive, if olive growers did not tend to their groves, the ground under the trees would be taken over by daisies, chamomile, anemones, field poppies, buttercups, forget-me-nots, stinging nettle, mallow.………

      The land of the olive tree.....The Aegean region of Turkey                  Photograph: Deniz Bevan