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."(http://www.delallo.com/articles/olives-noble-fruits-place-history-and-table)

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

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The opium poppy

I have been in opium poppy fields as a child.

The opium poppy Papaver somniferum is the only variety of poppy that is grown commercially. The field in the above photograph was on the grounds of the Aydın State Hospital where my father was the internal medicine specialist and later the chief MD. The poppy were grown for medicinal use.

It is believed that the opium poppy originated in the Mediterranean region. Papaver somniferum, also called opium poppy, bread seed poppy and sometimes Turkish poppy or peony poppy, has been cultivated since around 4000 BC and has been used for both its medicinal and recreational drug qualities. The seed pod that follows the flower which contains a milky sap holds the main ingredients found in opium: morphine, codeine and thebaine. Opium for illegal use is often converted into heroin.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s the poppy produced in Turkey had fallen in the hands of drug traffickers and most of the produce entered the USA as illegal narcotics. At the time the USA wanted Turkey to put an end to growing poppy. Three consecutive Prime Ministers realized that this would not be a step taken in the right direction. Growing poppy was a tradition and an important source of income for many farmers. The plan was to grow the plant under strict control and guidelines. In addition, the USA agreed on a policy to purchase the raw materials needed for medicinal use from Turkey and encourage other countries to do the same.

There are several countries that are considered traditional growers of poppy and as a major traditional grower Turkey plants 54 % of the world’s legal poppy fields. Legal opium production is allowed under the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and other international drug treaties. In thirteen provinces 70,000 farmers grow opium poppy under strict supervision by law enforcement agencies of the country. The main cultivation areas are in southwestern Turkey. There is even a city by the name of Afyon which is the Turkish word for opium. Burdur, Denizli, Konya, İsparta and Uşak are some of the other cities where opium poppy is grown.

Papaver somniferum has many subspecies or varieties and cultivars. Colors of the flower, number and shape of petals, number of seeds and other physical characteristics vary.


Today many synthetic and purified forms of narcotics are produced but Papaver somniferum still provides the most effective anesthetic. No drug has been found that can match the painkilling effect of opioids without also duplicating much of their addictive potential.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014


Gelincik which means little bride, is the Turkish name for Papaver rhoeas. We all know this very special wild flower as field poppy, corn poppy, coquelicot or Flanders poppy. I consider it a privilege to have been acquainted with this poppy as a child. My experiences help me relate with enthusiasm to how these flowers must have inspired the famous French impressionist painter Claude Monet in creating his landscapes of poppy fields.

Poppy Field was shown to the public at the first Impressionist exhibition held in the photographer Nadar’s disused studio in 1874. The young woman with the umbrella and the child in the foreground are believed to be the artist's wife, Camille, and their son Jean.

Papaver rhoeas is also the remembrance flower. People have always noticed how the poppy grows in war fields. In the spring of 1915 poppies were one of the few plants able to bloom on the extensively damaged battlefields of Flanders-Belgium, France and Gallipoli-Turkey. In Flanders Fields, the war poem which mentions poppies was written during the First World War by Canadian physician and Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae. Poppies became the internationally recognized symbol of remembering the great loss of life and those who have died in war. The wearing of poppies in the days leading up to Remembrance Day is popular in the Commonwealth Nations, particularly Great Britain, Canada and South Africa, and in the days leading up to ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand. The flower continues to help the living as a means of raising funds to support those in need as a result of war.

Canadian remembrance poppies

P. rhoeas is a flowering plant in the poppy family Papaveracea. The only species of Papaveraceae grown as a field crop on a large scale is Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy.

The origin of P. rhoeas is not known for certain. It is suggested to be the lands where agriculture has been practiced since the earliest times which would be the Middle East, Asia Minor and North Africa. This makes it an agricultural or arable weed, hence the definition as field or corn poppy. “It has most of the characteristics of a successful weed of agriculture. These include an annual lifecycle that fits into that of most cereals, a tolerance of simple weed control methods, the ability to flower and seed itself before the crop is harvested.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papaver_rhoeas)

P. rhoeas has an acrid taste and it is mildly poisonous to grazing animals. Bees love it as a pollen source. As many other species of Papaver, P. rhoeas also exudes a white latex when the tissues are broken.

The P. rhoeas flowers are in full bloom from late spring to early summer. About 5 cm in diameter, the showy, vivid red flowers have four petals with a black spot at their base. The petals are luminous and as delicate as butterfly wings. They are crumpled in the bud and as blooming finishes the petals often lie flat before falling away. The plant is monocarpic meaning that it dies after flowering. The stems grow up to 20-25cm in height.


I loved the color red very much when I was a child. During our spring outings to the country side it was exhilarating to find red poppies as far as the eye could see. I made little princesses by prying open the tips of the closed buds to form a courtly gown. Infrequently, the petals inside the bud would appear as dusty pink or orange. This made for different color skirts. I would try to place the capsules that had lost their petals on top of the skirts as the head. Ah, memories of young joy do not fade.