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


  1. I've always wanted to taste sarsaparilla.
    Interesting, about holly and kokina - and poinsettia. Everyone wants red and green at Christmastime! I wonder if that started with the Victorians?

  2. It was a joy to read this post. My parents are from Istanbul and shared their memories of kokino with me, but I couldn't find a picture or some more information anywhere. Thank you very much.

  3. I'm happy you enjoyed the post. I wish you provided your name.