Monday, January 26, 2015

Nut pine

What we call nut pine in Turkish is Pinus pinea, commonly known as stone pine. My family used to have three stone pine trees at our summer place on the Aegean Sea. They had been planted unreasonably close to the house which made it difficult to accommodate them as they grew over the years; in the end they needed to be cut down. We enjoyed them while they lasted.

                                                                                            Kuşadası, Turkey

A nut pine tree begins to produce nuts ten to fifteen years after it is planted. Collecting nuts from a pine tree is sticky business. You must wear gloves to protect your hands from getting all sticky with sap. During the summer and fall months the trees can have green unripe cones, partially open brown cones and old black cones that have lost their nuts. Beneath the trees there will always be nuts on the ground that fell out of the older cones. The brown cones that contain nuts occasionally fall off by themselves or they need to be shaken off the tree with the help of a long stick. When you have enough cones you can place them in a sunny spot for several days to let them dry and open up further to reveal their nuts.


On each scale of the cones there are two nuts encased in beige and black hard shells (seed coat) resembling pistachio shells. You pry open the scales to get these out of the cone. At this stage the gloves protect your hands from being covered in the black oily dusting present on the shells of the nuts.

                                                    Cones that have lost their nuts

The next step is to break open the shells to get at the nuts. The nuts are still protected with a very thin, brown membrane that needs to be crumbled off each nut. Harvesting pine nuts is arduous and labor intensive work which is a factor in their high price.

What we call nuts are actually the edible seeds of pine trees. The most harvested seeds come from four pine varieties; a Mexican pine, a Colorado pine, the Chinese nut pine and the European nut pine, P. pinea of the Pinaceae family. The European nut pine P. pinea is native to Southern Europe, North Africa,Turkey and the Levant. It has been cultivated for its seeds for over 6,000 years. The seeds or the nuts have been harvested from wild pine trees for far longer. Elongated and ivory colored P. pinea nuts measure a half inch long. They have a high protein content and they are a good source of dietary fiber.

                                               Photograph: Salvator Barki. The Big Island (Princes’ Islands), Istanbul

At maturity, the average size of this species of nut pine is 20 meters tall and the canopy can be 10 meters wide. The trees start out with a very rounded canopy but as they grow the canopy becomes umbrella-like. As the trees age the canopy becomes more flat. The stone pine is a beautiful tree that has come to symbolize Mediterranean vistas.

Green and dry pine needles

Monday, January 19, 2015

My great grandmother’s garden

My mother loved to talk about her childhood.  I was not fortunate to meet them, but I grew up getting to know my grandparents and their parents from the stories my mother told me about them.  My maternal grandfather’s mother was the true flower lover in the family.  She would grow all kinds of flowers in her garden.  In the spring, summer and fall she would take her Turkish coffee among her flowers and she always wore a flower behind her ear. 

Ayşe Fatma Çelebican with my mother Gülten Çelebican Örstan c.1932

Ayşe Fatma’s home in Daday, Kastamonu. The picture was taken in the fall of 2008.

I am thinking she must have had pansies, asters and snapdragons in her garden.


She, for sure, had some gomphrena. I used to see this plant, Gomphrena globosa to be precise, in the gardens in Turkey when I was a child, which I find amazing because the plant is native to Brazil, Panama and Guatemala.

Gomphrena globosa belongs to the Amaranthaceae family and it is an annual plant that grows up to 60 cm in height. The true species has magenta bracts but cultivars have other colors. At this point we need to check out the meaning of bract. In botany, a calyx describes a floral structure, whereas a bract describes a leaf structure. Yet, bracts are specialized leaves often different from foliage leaves. They may be small, large and of different color, shape or texture. They are also different from the parts of the flower, such as the petals or sepals. Their main function is to protect the flower from pests and harsh weather. If we look at the picture of the Gomphrena globosa we see the tiny, true white flowers within the flowerheads, or the bracts in this case. They are insignificant looking and visible only close up. There are dozens of these flowers in each globose flowerhead.

A common name for this plant is button flower. Its spiky and papery puffs are about 2 cm in diameter and they bloom from early summer to frost. Button flower is easy to grow. It will bloom throughout the season without deadheading and won’t need fertilizer or much water. Few insects bother the plant. They dry easily also. Cutting the stems just as the heads are beginning to open and hanging them upside down will be sufficient. They will hold their color for several years.

Monday, January 12, 2015


      Pompeii, Italy, spring of 2013

We encounter the electric yellow of the broom in numerous fauna and flora.

There is a very yellow fish called Electric Yellow Cichlid.


Yellow chrysanthemums can be just as bright yellow.

Canola fields present a similar eye catching yellow.

What is charming for me about this plant is that I always come across brooms in sunny Mediterranean environments. My very first encounter with it was in the 1960s when we used to see the shrubs along the narrow highway leading to the resort town of Kuşadası on the Aegean Sea.

The common name of the plant comes from the old word bróm meaning thorny shrub. Use of the branches of these plants for sweeping gave rise to the term broom for sweeping tools in the 15th century (

I am learning that brooms form a tribe. In the botanical classification of plants, the fifth rank is the family. The following ranks are genus (taxonomic group containing one or more species) and species. Sometimes plants belong to subfamilies, and tribe is a taxonomic group between genus and subfamily.

Brooms belong to the tribe called Genisteae, in the subfamily Faboideae of the family Fabaceae. All members of Genisteae are native to Europe, North Africa and Southwest Asia, with the greatest diversity along the Mediterranean. There are mainly three genera (plural of genus) of brooms: Chamaecytisus, Cytisus and Genista. Brooms in Cystisus and Genista genera flower mainly late spring to early summer.

Now, how to know which genus the brooms I’m familiar with belong to? We turn to Wikipedia for more enlightenment.

Dryer’s broom could be the species I’m looking for. The botanical name for it is Genista tinctoria. It is native to Europe and Turkey. It is a deciduous shrub growing to 60-90 cm tall. The pea like flowers are canary yellow and the fruit is a long, shiny pod similar to a green bean pod.

As the word tinctoria in its name would indicate this broom has been used from ancient times for producing a yellow dye.

It was from this plant that the isoflavone genistein was first isolated in 1899, hence the name of the chemical compound. The medicinal parts are the flowering twigs. Genistein and other isoflavones have been found to inhibit the uncontrolled cell growth of cancer.

The plant has also been used in popular medicine and herbalism for various complaints, including skin diseases.

I had no idea that this lovely plant is as useful as it is pretty.

There are so many different brooms that I will need to look into this plant further.


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Stinging nettle

Growing up in a temperate and fertile environment one of the plants you learn to avoid is the stinging nettle. Its Turkish name is ısırgan (otu-herb/weed). Isırmak-‘to bite’, with the adjective forming suffix ‘gan’ comes to mean ısırgan-‘biting’. It proliferates like a weed and you are ‘once bitten twice shy’ around this plant. Its botanical name Urtica dioica of the genus Urtica in the Urticaceae family, stinging nettle is one of six subspecies that sting.

“Nettle is part of the English name of many plants with stinging hairs, particularly those of the genus Urtica”. ( Hollow hairs called trichomes on the leaves and stems inject histamine and several other chemicals when contacted by humans and animals that cause a painful burning sensation on the skin with no long-term physical effect.

Stinging nettle is native to Europe, Asia, Northern Africa and North America.

I can’t do justice to most plants with my limited description. Their numerous traits must be analyzed in detail and traced from season to season. The most I can do is to spark an interest in those who do not recognize them readily. As we can see in the above illustration from a book by Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé, titled Flora von Deutschland, Öserreich und der Schweiz (1885, Gera-Untermhaus, Germany), stinging nettle is a herbaceous perennial flowering plant. ( File:Illustration_Urtica_dioica0_clean.jpg)

The stinging nettle has a long history of use as a medicine, as a food source and as a source of dietary fiber. Wikipedia provides us with the information that “nettles are used in Albania as part of the dough filling for byrek. Its name is ‘byrek me hithra’. The top baby leaves are selected and simmered, then mixed with other ingredients like herbs, rice, etc. before being used as a filling between dough layers.” In Turkey this dish is called ‘ısırgan otlu börek’-nettle herb börek.

                                          A kind of börek