[STARTING UP IN TURKEY] Vegetation in Turkey

April 08, 2009, Wednesday/ 16:06:00
Spring has arrived in Turkey and finally the flowers are blooming again. Parks, avenues and roadsides, resplendent in splashes of colors, are bestrewn with millions upon millions of crocuses, daffodils and violas.Not to forget the masses of tulips, the country’s national symbol, planted almost everywhere there is open space.

Did you actually know that the tulip is regarded as a Turkish flower? Although the tulip’s likely origin lies somewhere in Central Asia, it is estimated that its bulbs have been cultivated on Anatolian soil for more than 3,000 years. Indeed, Turkey is home to many, many other botanic highlights. From cultivated crops and fruits to wild green and ornamental flowers, the Turkish flora wants for nothing. Let’s have a look.

According to data provided by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the total number of plant species found on the European continent is estimated to be 12,000, whereas the number discovered in Turkey alone has already come close to this figure with 10,000 species, 3,000 of which are endemic. And it will probably surpass these numbers as a result of future research.

With such natural wealth, Turkey is one of the world’s major biodiversity hot spots and, according to the WWF, home to five of the 200 most valuable eco-regions in the world.

Indeed, the huge geographical and climatic variations of the country have resulted in a great number of different natural habitats, mirrored again by a great diversity of flora.

Thus, agriculture plays a big role in Turkey. Did you know, for example, that Turkey is one of the world’s few self-sufficient countries in terms of agricultural products? The most fertile region is the Black Sea coast with its thick forests and green, lush areas, where tea plantations and fruits are grown on a large scale. Also, the southwestern Aegean and Mediterranean coasts have huge vegetable fruit and crop plantations, home to many endemic flora.

According to the WWF, the crops native to Anatolia include chickpeas, lentils, figs, cherries, almonds and apricots. Their origins are recorded in the Latin names for some of these species, such as Ficus carica, which derives from the Caria, an archaic civilization of Anatolia of the southern Aegean region. Similarly the cherry’s scientific name, Cerasus, comes from the ancient name for the province of Giresun on Turkey’s Black Sea coast.

Thirty species of wheat found in Turkey

Arguably, 30 percent of field crops originally evolved in Anatolia. Wheat became the most famous. Did you know, for example, that over 30 wild species of wheat still grow in Turkey? Indeed, this number is well mirrored by the many different types of meatballs (köfte), which mostly include wheat (bulgur) as one of their ingredients.

Trees are worth mentioning, especially the palms and the pines, common to every summer memory from the Turkish south, as well as the fig-cactus and the agave.

Moreover, Turkey is also home to a wide range of aromatic and medicinal plants. According to Professor Kemal Hüsnü Can Baser from the Anadolu University School of Pharmacy in Eskişehir, there are nearly 11,700 different types of plants in Turkey. Nearly 1,000 of these are used for medical or cosmetic purposes -- thyme and rose in particular.

And last but not least, we have a large number of ornamental flowers, which give us so much pleasure in these early days of spring. Of those cultivated from wild forms native to Turkey, we should especially mention the crocus, the snowdrop, the lily and the fritillary. Not to forget the tulip mentioned above!

Indeed, although everyone thinks that tulips come from Holland, their botanical name, “tulipa,” tells a different story: It is derived from the Turkish word for the Ottoman headwear, “tülbend” (turban), which the flower resembles. And the period between 1718 and1730, during which the Ottoman Empire experienced a period of great success, peace and enjoyment, is even called the Tulip Era. Thus, the tulip was actually an export to Europe, including the Netherlands; one assumes they were delivered by an Austrian ambassador stationed in the Ottoman court. There is even a story that one Dutchman, confused by the gift of a tulip bulb, fried it and ate it like an onion.

To pay its respect to the flower, İstanbul celebrates the annual Tulip Festival every April. Parks, gardens, avenues and road borders have been extensively planted. Last year, the municipality used an incredible 12 million bulbs in addition to the 8 million previously planted ones.

What, that is still not enough to put you into a spring mood? Well, then you should urgently visit a botanic garden. Adana, Ankara and İzmir have the biggest ones, set up with great care and professional knowledge. İstanbul is even home to three gardens, among them is the Atatürk Arboretum in the district Büyükdere, established in 1949. The newer Nezahat Gökyiğit Botanic Garden in the Ataşehir district was started in 1995 with the aim of protecting endemic and rare plants and to help conserve Turkey’s astonishingly rich diversity of plant life. Today, the garden hosts over 17,000 species on an area of 50 hectares, including an especially comprehensive collection of oak species. A welcome variety in the middle of a mega-city like İstanbul and a definite must for a relaxing spring visit!