Monday, June 29, 2015



Commonly known simply as oleander, Nerium oleander is an evergreen shrub or small tree in the Apocynaceae family. The only species classified in the genus Nerium, it is thought to be native to the Mediterranean region. It is naturalized to a broad area from Mauritania, Morocco and Portugal eastward to the Arabian Peninsula and can be found in southern Asia, China and in the United States.

I had not noticed this plant until we started taking long car trips from Istanbul to Kuşadası in the 1970s. In the beginning of the summer, each time we passed near Manisa we used to see oleander bushes along the road and they would be harbingers of our destination being not too far from there on. N. oleander typically grows in dry stream beds.

N. oleander did not used to be cultivated as widely as it is today. Oleander increasingly became to be grown as an ornamental plant in landscapes and in parks and it became a desirable garden plant. It is being used as a median strip planting for highways. It can easily be grown into trees. “The plant will tolerate a wide range of conditions, including difficult soil, salt spray, high pH, severe pruning, reflected heat from pavements and walls, and drought”. It can withstand winter temperatures down to -10 degrees Centigrade.

Oleander grows to 2–6 m tall, with erect stems that splay outward as they mature. The leaves are in pairs or whorls of three, thick and leathery, dark-green, narrow lancoelate, 5–21 cm long and 1–3.5 cm broad. The flowers grow in clusters at the end of each branch; they are white, pink to red, 2.5–5 cm diameter. They are often, but not always, sweet-scented. The fruit is a long narrow capsule 5–23 cm long, which splits open at maturity to release numerous downy seeds. (

                                    Seed capsules

This is one of the most poisonous of commonly grown garden plants, however, there are few reported poising incidences of humans. All parts of the plant are generally considered toxic and the level of poisoning varies with the particular plant, part of the plant, and the amount consumed.

In Turkish the name of the plant is ‘zakkum’ from the Arabic (زقوم) word for it. According to Islam this is the tree with the deadly and bitter fruit that grows in hell. The tree found in paradise is ‘tuba’. It is fortunate that when the word is used to mean bitter or poisonous foodstuff it is pronounced as ‘zıkkım’ which is probably closer to the Arabic way of saying it and this means, in daily life people do not associate the pretty plant with any negative connotations. ‘Zıkkımın kökünü ye’- ‘eat the root of oleander’ is an expression uttered at times of annoyance when someone close does not like or eat what you have prepared for them. Not a nice thing to say.

          Bodrum, Turkey 2006                                                                                                       Cannes, France 1996

Oleanders bloom from May to October. Over 400 cultivars have been named and many of them have double flowers. I believe shades of apricot, salmon, purple and yellow have also been created.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Six floral kingdoms

I wanted to know about the general classification of plants and here is what I found out: In the field of geography the areas of the world are classified in different ways. One of these ways is to look at the distinctive flora of the different areas of the world, the word flora defining the plant life occurring in a particular region or time, generally the naturally occurring or native plant life. Botanist Ronald D'Oyley Good (1896-1992), a professor of botany at the Hull University, Yorkshire, England, identified 6 floral kingdoms. Building on the work of Prof. Good, Soviet-Armenian botanist Armen Takhtajan (1910-2009), an important figure in 20th century plant evolution, systematics and biogeography, created a system of classification of the following six floral kingdoms:
• Holarctic Kingdom
• Paleotropical Kingdom
• Neotropical Kingdom
• South African Kingdom
• Australian Kingdom
• Antarctic Kingdom
The six floral kingdoms contain a total of 35 regions, with each kingdom having at least one region, and all regions having at least one province, for a total of 152 provinces.


The continent of Antarctica has been too cold and dry to support virtually any vascular plants for millions of years. The cold, lack of sunlight, little rainfall, inferior soil quality and lack of moisture account for scanty vegetation. Plants are not able to absorb water available in the form of ice. Presently the flora of Antarctica consists of some lichens, mosses, liverworts, and numerous terrestrial and aquatic algal species.

“Only two species of flowering plants, Antarctic hair grass (Deschampsia antarctica) and Antarctic pearlwort (Colobanthus quitensis) are found, occurring on the South Orkney Islands, the South Shetland Islands and along the Western Antarctic Peninsula.” (


Lichens have proliferated in Antarctica because they have a high tolerance of draught and cold. A lichen is a composite organism consisting of a fungus and a photosynthetic partner, growing together in a symbiotic relationship with the photosynthetic partner converting light energy (from the sun) into chemical energy which is later used to fuel the organism’s activities.

I do not think the lichens that live in Antarctica are to be found near any place I live or travel. The lichen the lay person is most familiar with must be the common orange lichen which has wide distribution. It is found in Australia, Africa, Asia, North America and throughout much of Europe. The species was first described by Carl Linnaeus in 1753, as Lichen parietinus. Now labelled Xanthoria parietina, it is a lichen species in the family Telochistaceae. It can be found near the shore on rocks or walls, and also on inland rocks, walls, or tree bark. (the epithet parietina means "on walls").


The upper surface is some shade of yellow, orange, or greenish yellow, while the lower surface is white.

X. parietina is a very pollution-tolerant species. It is also tolerant of heavy metal contamination.


It was chosen as a model organism for genomic sequencing (planned in 2006) by the US Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute (JGI). (

My photographs do not do justice to this versatile plant which is hidden from sight most of the time for the lay person. Also, I realize that I would need botanical and chemical expertise to begin to describe the complex structure of lichens in any adequate manner.


Monday, June 15, 2015

Euphorbia helioscopia

I saw this familiar plant in October in the garden of my mother’s apartment complex in Istanbul. The gardener had allowed the weeds to take over the flower beds at a time when winter was around the corner. With delight I photographed it and discovered some lovely details about it. I had no hope of finding out its name any time soon which meant that I would not be able to write about it.

Back in Montreal in April (2014), getting ready to fly back to Istanbul once again, I received the promotional spring copy of the Plaisir de Vivre magazine in the mail. There was an article titled Le Vert Galant/Seed Savior about the Quebec artist Patrice Fortier who grows vegetables in his garden in Kamouraska by the St. Laurent River. Fortier had taken the picture of the top of a sun spurge protruding through the leaves of another plant in his garden.

A plant native to Europe, northern Africa and most of Asia was found in Quebec. The binomial name for it is Euphorbia helioscopia. To unfamiliar eyes it may seem like a very nondescript weed. When you look closely, like all plants, it is a marvel of nature. E. helioscopia belongs to the genus Euphorbia of the family Euphorbiaceae, and characteristically has milky juice and small flowers with no petals or sepals. The three compartment seed pods protrude from the side of the flowers and they out grow them in size.

E. helioscopia is an annual plant that grows in arable or disturbed land. It grows to 10–50 cm tall, with a single, erect, hairless stem, branching toward the top. The leaves are oval, broadest near the tip, 1.5–3 cm long. The flowers are small, yellow-green and flowering lasts from mid spring to early fall.

The botanical name Euphorbia derives from Euphorbus, the Greek physician of King Juba II of Numidia, a Berber-Libyan kingdom in North Africa. He wrote that one of the cactus-like Euphorbias was a powerful laxative. In 12 B.C. Juba named this plant after his physician Euphorbus. Botanist and taxonomist Carl Linnaeus assigned the name Euphorbia to the entire genus in the physician's honor (

The name helioscopia comes from the Ancient Greek helios, ’sun’ and skopein, ’to watch’: sunwatcher. When the plant is observed, it can be seen that it turns its stems towards the sun.

The members of the family and genus are commonly referred to as spurges. The word derives from the Middle English/Old French espurge, ‘to purge’, based on the use of the plant's sap as a purgative.

                                                               Sun spurge in April 2014

The milky sap of spurges called ‘latex’ evolved as a deterrent to herbivores. In contact with the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose and mouth, the latex can produce a painful inflammation.

I found out recently that Mexican jumping beans are the seed pods of the shrub Sebastiania pavoniana. The 'beans' are inhabited by the larva of a small moth, Cydia deshaisiana. The ‘bean’, usually tan to brown in color, ‘jumps’ when heated, because the larva spasms in an attempt to roll the seed to a cooler environment to avoid dehydration and consequent death. However, they are not related to actual beans, but rather to spurges (

On a road trip through New Mexico and Arizona in the summer of 1997 I had a jumping bean. I inadvertently left my jumping bean in the sun and it stopped jumping.

Monday, June 8, 2015


When my memories take me back to the times spent on the sunny, sandy Kuşadası beaches of my childhood in the 1950s, I also remember reeds. I played with reed stems. Reeds were used for making changing cabins, restaurant awnings or platforms to sit on.

When I remember reeds I think of languorous summer afternoons, tiny waves lapping the shore, hot sand scorching our feet, cloth covered cork life vests ……

Arundo donax in April

I’m working on identifying reeds correctly. Economically reeds are grouped with leaf and stem crops in the grass family. 12 subfamilies are recognized in the grass family Poaceae. The subfamily Arundinoideae of the family Poaceae includes the giant reed and the common reed. The giant reed, Arundo donax, is taller with longer leaves and with a longer, more compact inflorescence than the common reed. The common reed, Phragmites australis subsp. australis (the European common reed variety), is a little shorter, with shorter and more narrow leaves, and a shorter inflorescence that looks more open and often leans to one side.

Reed is abundant in the Aegean and Mediterranean regions of Turkey, planted as field hedges and found in wetlands. It is used in basket and mat weaving. The reeds (Arundo donax with specific properties) that grow at Samandağ in the Hatay Province of Turkey (Southeastern Turkey) are the best reeds in the world for making reedpipe (kaval) and ney, a flute like instrument the name of which comes from the Persian word ‘nay’ for reed. The Turkish ney (reed flute), together with insturments such as tanbur (long necked lute), rebab (type of fiddle), kudüm (small drums) and others, is an important component of classical Turkish music.

Photograph: Rifat Varol, Feb. 20, 2012 The names of the above ney in Turkish are ‘boynuz başpareli kız ney’ and ‘yıldız ney’. (

A.donax is also the principal source material for reeds of woodwind instruments such as clarinets, saxophones oboes, etc. Sound is produced by blowing air into the mouthpiece of the instrument which then causes a thin strip of reed to vibrate.

                                                      The common reed where the Göksu River meets the Black Sea (Ağva, Turkey)

Reeds have been of use to us in many ways over thousands of years.

                                                                        The common reed in Malta in April, 2014

                                             Life vest similar to the one my parents tied around my waist to go swimming

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The trumpet vine

I came across the trumpet vine in the 1960s at the famed Termal Otel (Thermal Hotel) in Yalova, Turkey.


The hotel’s restaurant had trellises on the wall that opened out to the lovely gardens. Perhaps there was a pergola that the vine climbed. The trumpet vine or Campsis radicans is a species of flowering plant of the family Bignoniaceae native to the southeastern United States. This deciduous woody vine has clusters of trumpet-shaped orange flowers with yellowish bases. I learn that the clusters called cymes have 4–12 flowers which appear after several months of warm weather and last throughout the summer.

The vine was introduced to England in the 17th century. The Latinized genus name campsis is from Greek kampsis-‘bending’ for its curved stamens and it is akin to Greek kampē-‘bend’ or ‘turn’. The Latin radicans means ‘with stems that take root’. C. radicans climbs by clinging to surfaces with aerial roots.

The leaves are pinnate and 3-10 cm long. They are emerald green when new and later become dark green. The flowers are followed by large, almost 15 cm seed pods. As these mature, they dry and split. Thin, brown, paper-like seeds are released. C. radicans vines can climb trees and with support they can reach up to 10-12 meters.

One gardener mentions that the term ‘invasive’ often used to describe the trumpet vine is not fair, for the plant does not escape cultivation, it does not invade natural areas and it does not pose an ecological threat. However, if you have a vine in your garden it can sprout countless shoots from a very wide spreading root system which can be very hard to remove completely.

The ‘60s were still the ‘white years’ with white towels, white bed linen and white table cloths being the norm. I remember an elegant restaurant with perhaps soft music playing in the background. Actually, those were the years before any renovations must have taken place at the hotel after a long stretch of use, and yet the unrushed formal dining rituals of the times, executed with flare stayed with me. The grounds of the hotel were like a botanical garden interspersed with pavilions in the shades of tall trees. There was an old cinema which still stands. I remember being impressed with the painters that I came across on the grounds of the hotel, working in tranquility on a canvas propped on their easels.

Every now and then my dad took respite from his aches and pains at Termal Hotel with wonderful thermal baths. Bursa and Yalova region is bestowed with hot springs. There are baths built by Byzantium emperors and Turkish Sultans that go back thousands of years. Yalova thermal waters contain a mix of calcium, sulfate and fluoride which makes them very therapeutic. Drinking these waters or bathing in them provides remedy for a number of ailments.

                                                   February 1977, my parents Baha and Gülten Örstan on the grounds of the hotel