Tuesday, February 24, 2015


Loquat is an ancient fruit. Loquat trees are unusual among fruit trees in that they flower in the autumn or early winter, and give fruit in late winter or early spring.

Loquat is malta eriği or frenk elması in Turkish-malta plum or frenk apple, frenk in Ottoman Turkish meaning European or French. People must have thought the tree originated in the Mediterranean lands. I was under that impression until the internet came into my life.

Loquat or Eribobotrya japonica is a species of flowering plant in the Rosaceae family native to Southern China. It is classified as a subtropical fruit and can easily grow in citrus-producing areas. It was first introduced into Japan and has been cultivated there for over a thousand years. Gradually it was naturalized in many other countries including the whole Mediterranean Basin.

Loquats flowering in November  in Istanbul

The loquat tree is the first tree that I came to recognize as a child. At the house we lived in until I was about 9 years old there was a loquat in the garden right outside the kitchen window. In my memory of the place there is a clay tiled narrow eaves in front of the window and then the canopy of the tree. I had grown so accustomed to this tree that to this day every loquat tree I see reminds me of that first tree I got to know.

               November                                                                     April

The flowers have a sweet, heady aroma that can be smelled from a distance. The flowers are 2 cm in diameter, white, with five petals, and produced in stiff panicles of three to ten flowers. As for the definition of panicle: A panicle is a compound raceme that has a branching main axis. The loquat flowers (and later the fruit) are attached along the secondary branches, as a branched cluster of flowers in which the branches are racemes. They can be defined as pedicellate flowers, pedicel being the branch or stalk that holds each flower in an inflorescence that contains more than one flower. It should be easier to just see the photograph.

“The leaves are alternate, 10–25 cm long, dark green, tough and leathery in texture, with a serrated margin, and densely velvety-hairy below with thick yellow-brown down; the young leaves are also densely covered in down above, but this soon rubs off (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loquat).”

There are numerous cultivars of loquat. The loquat fruit I am familiar with is oval or rounded, 3–5 cm long, with an orange skin that is smooth and leathery. The succulent, tangy flesh is white. Each fruit contains from one to ten ovules, with three to five being most common. A variable number of the ovules mature into large brown seeds. The skin can be easily peeled off manually when the fruit is ripe.


If you wish to grow a loquat tree in the Aegean parts of Turkey all you have to do is scatter a few seeds. The following year you will have your loquat tree sprouting.

End of April, Heybeliada (one of the Princes’ Islands), Istanbul

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Blackberries have been eaten by humans over thousands of years. Blackberry is the edible fruit produced by the Rubus genus in the Rosaceae family of plants. To me blackberries are a gift from nature that I enjoy picking and eating around Arnavutköy in Istanbul. Finding wild blackberries not in some remote area, a rural backdrop or a village garden, but in a metropolis of all places renders half the fun. Road side blackberries may have incorporated toxins from car emissions but we only manage to gather a handful of them anyway due to the fact that not all of them grow to their full potential.
                                                               Henri picking blackberries in Arnavutköy

Bees pollinate the blackberry flowers and the smallest change in conditions such as a rainy or a too hot day may hinder their daily work, thus reducing the quality of the fruit. Lack of nutrient reserves in the roots of the plants or an infection with a virus can lead to incomplete drupelet development also.

The species of the genus Rubus are rapid growing deciduous shrubs growing to 3 m. They flower from May to September, and the seeds ripen from July to October. The flowers are produced on short racemes and each flower is about 2-3 cm in diameter with five white or pale pink petals.

The usually black fruit of the blackberry is not a true berry in botanical terms but an aggregate fruit of numerous drupelets. The drupelets only develop around ovules that are fertilized by the male gamete. Blackberry flowers are hermaphrodites: A single flower contains both male and female parts. Bees feeding on the flower's nectar can transfer pollen which contains sperm cells from one flower to another whereby numerous ovaries are fertilized. Embryos are formed within seeds.

Blackberries also have the ability to bypass fertilization by developing seeds asexually in the ovaries, without any help from pollen. This is called apomixis.

The blackberry is a widespread shrub throughout the world. Bramble, meaning impenetrable scrub, was traditionally used to describe the blackberry shrub. Blackberry shrubs grow in woods, scrubs, hillsides and hedgegrows. They take over wasteland, ditches and vacant lots. Unmanaged plants form a tangle of arching stems and the branches root from node tips when they reach the ground. Nodes are the points on a stem where buds, leaves and branching twigs originate.

                                                        ‘Blackberries are red when they are green’ is a British expression.

In addition to the shrubs being very dense, the first and second year shoots have numerous short and curved prickles. This makes it very difficult to reach for the ripe fruit.

I am learning that there are very many species of blackberries and they can easily hybridize. There are many cultivars with more than one species in their ancestry. Raspberries are their relatives and the distinguishing characteristic is that when picking a blackberry fruit the torus (the receptacle) stays with the fruit and with a raspberry the torus remains on the plant, leaving a hollow core in the raspberry fruit.

In the past decade or so, Mexico has become the leading commercial producer of blackberries for world markets. Blackberries are very nutritious. To really enjoy them you must love their sour taste though.

                                                                                    Blackberries from Mexico

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Cypress tree

The great painter Vincent Van Gogh painted cypresses just like the ones in the photograph below. His Cypresses was painted in 1889. I took the photograph of these two beautiful trees in Istanbul in the fall of 2013.

Cypress is a name used for many trees in the conifer (one that bears cones in Latin) family Cupressaceae. The word cypress is derived from Old French cipres, imported from the Latin cypressus which is the Latinisation of the Greek word kyparissos (κυπάρισσος). This word may also be the origin of the name of the Island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean.

Cupressus sempervirens is the kind of cypress tree that I am interested in. The species name sempervirens comes from the Latin for evergreen.

                                                                                        Photograph: Güldal Ebeoğlu

Also known as the Mediterranean cypress, Italian or Tuscan cypress or graveyard cypress, this cypress is native to the eastern Mediterranean region. It is a tall evergreen tree that grows to 35 m.

Turkish literature had two traditions for a long period of time which did not have much influence on one another until the 19th century. The written literature was heavily influenced by Persian and Arabic literature which lead to the development of the Ottoman Turkish. The mostly oral folk literature remained free of the influences of Persian and Arabic and was created using standard Turkish. Yet, amazingly, in both the written literature and the folk literature, the same specific similes came to be used to describe the beloved maiden. One of these descriptions was about the height of the loved one. In both literary traditions it was likened to a cypress; selvi boylu-‘of cypress height, tall like a cypress.’ The cypress in mind was Cupressus sempervirens.

                                                                                   Istanbul in October

The leaves of Cupressus sempervirens are branched and dark green in color. The seed cones are ovoid and approximately 25 mm long. Green at first, they mature after pollination in about two years. The male cones are only 3-5 mm long and they release pollen in winter.

Believed to be growing in the gardens of paradise, the cypress tree was one of the favored trees in the classical gardens of Iran and throughout the Islamic world. It was also frequently depicted in old Islamic miniatures.

Courtyard from the Hünernâme, 16th century

Cypress trees are very long-lived. Some trees are reported to be over 1,000 years old according to Wikipedia. The characteristics of the trees to not lose their leaves and to survive for a long time gave them almost a supernatural connotation. In Turkey they are planted in cemeteries to protect and watch over the dead.

Cypress trees stand guard for a peaceful rest for my grandfather, my father and my father-in-law.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Meander Plain and Vitex agnus-castus

                                              The Meander Plain; looking north towards Aydın and the Aydın Mountains beyond

The Meander Plain, in Turkish the Menderes Plain, is one of the most fertile places on earth. That is why it is also beautiful. Years ago, a recently appointed governor who had just arrived was in such awe of what he saw that he could not help but comment “no doubt the wooden power poles could easily sprout”.

Jeremy Seal, the travel writer, canoed along the Meander River that gives the plain its name and his book titled Meander was published in 2013. Seal followed the river for 500 km. from the spring where it rises near the town of Dinar to where it drains into the Aegean Sea between the resort towns of Didim and Kuşadası in Western Turkey. The Meander is a deep river but not very broad which makes it navigable only by small craft.

I chose the plant called hayıt in Turkish that I had first seen near the Meander River to symbolize the plains watered by this great river. I can remember its heady smell from hot and hazy summers of long ago. This plant is found throughout the Mediterranean region. It is a deciduous shrub which grows three to five meters high and forms dense thickets on river banks and in coastal areas. It flowers from summer to early fall. Commonly called vitex, chaste tree or chasteberry, the plant has a complex botanical name, Vitex agnus-castus. Vitex is a genus of tropical and subtropical flowering plants in the Lamiacea family of which Vitex agnus-castus is one of the few temperate-zone species.

In the initial stages of growth the branches are covered with a fine down. It has five to seven lobed palmate leaves and the fruit are small brownish berries. The flowers are violet, blue, pink or white.

The flowers develop on roughly 15 cm. long shoots that form at the terminal portions of the branches. With this plant we learn of the term meristem in botany which means the tissue that contains undifferentiated cells (meristematic cells) found on most plants where growth can take place. These cells are like the stem cells in animals. The Shoot Apical Meristem-cells at the apex of a shoot-produces flowers in this case. On the tips of the shoots there are new buds developing and towards the base of the shoots there are full flowers. The word meristem is derived from the Greek word merizein (μερίζειν) meaning to divide.

I am surprised to find out that the name of the plant, Vitex agnus-castus, comes from the Roman times and that vitex has been used as a medication for a certain number of illnesses since olden days. Wikipedia gives us the meaning of vitex as drived from the Latin vieo, meaning to weave or to tie in reference to the use of the plant in basketry. A naturalist, among other things, Gaius Plinius Secundus (23-79AD) better known as Pliny the Elder called the plant vitex. Others mentioned it as agnus or castus. The meaning of agnus is pure, holy and the meaning of castus is again pure and chaste.

The Plant Encyclopedia, (http://www.avogel.com/plant-encyclopaedia/vitex_agnus-castus.php, founder Alfred Vogel, 1902-1996) provides the following information: “The plant's name resulted from a series of misinterpretations. Theophrastus and Dioscorides called the bush ágonos, the ‘a’ negating ‘gonos’ which means progeny, therefore ‘infertile’. In the course of time, this word became agnós, meaning ‘holy, pure, chaste’. Pliny used the Latin word for chastity, ‘castitas’, to describe the plant. ‘Agnós’ was in turn misinterpreted as the Latin agnus, meaning ‘lamb’, which resulted in the plant becoming known as ‘chaste lamb’.”

Vitex or chaste tree was believed to promote chastity and reduce libido in both men and women. Medicinally it was used to treat abdominal complaints and to help regulate hormone levels to provide relief from hot flashes and menopausal symptoms for women. The extract derived from the berries is being used to control symptoms of PMS even today, although trials indicate that it is not better than currently available medications. It remains an alternative remedy.

The Plant Encyclopedia provides information about peculiar uses of the plant, one being that “in medieval cloisters, the fruit from the bush were used as a substitute for pepper as the German name ‘Monchspfeffer’ (Monk’s Pepper) implies in order to suppress carnal desire (= anaphrodisiac). The monks scattered Agnus castus chaff in their sleeping quarters. The custom of strewing Agnus castus flowers on the paths leading to the cloisters for novices is still carried out to this day in Italy.”

I believe, with all this historical significance, Vitex agnus castus makes a wonderful symbol for the area rich in lore.