Wouldn’t you like to discover İstanbul’s secret garden?

Dr. Erdal Üzen of İstanbul University’s Botanic Garden

October 28, 2009, Wednesday/ 16:20:00
The İstanbul University Botanical Garden first opened in 1935, yet many people who were born and bred in İstanbul don’t know anything about this rich botanical treasure trove.The variety of plants found in this garden is breathtaking -- pineapples, avocados, Lebanon cedars, coffee trees, cacao trees, crocuses native to Anatolia, scores of orchids and many specimens of banana trees.

Another interesting aspect of the İstanbul University Botanic Garden is the parrots you might see here. These are parrots were originally brought to İstanbul to be sold in 1998; they were loaded from a cargo plane onto a truck but escaped when the truck was in an accident. Ultimately, the parrots wound up successfully living and breeding in İstanbul, and now they come to the botanical garden every morning, mostly because foods they love grow on trees in these gardens.

And so we, too, decide to drop in on the parrots’ favorite stopover, to take in the incredible diversity in these gardens and see a range of plants and trees from around the world that live here under expertly maintained conditions.

The botanical garden was first created by Alfred Heilbronn but is now run by Dr. Erdal Üzen, who has given his life over to the study and care of these plants and trees. There are 400 trees and bushes and around 3,500 different kinds of plants and herbs growing here, with approximately 2,500 plants growing in greenhouses. There are plants from all points of the globe, brought to this garden through careful cooperation with other universities. There are Amazonian plants, special hyacinths from the Amazon that live in water, tropical bean trees and even some parasitic plants that live without soil. Though many of these plants would never be able to survive on their own in our country’s climate, here they are able to live and thrive in a warm, moist greenhouse atmosphere. Of course, there are some plants in the botanical garden which require a much colder setting.

The sago palm: ancient ancestor

There is one tree in particular that lives in the colder greenhouse that will pique the interest of anyone who has grown up in the shade of walnut, fir or juniper trees. The tree is called a sago palm, and its origins go back 380 million years. It bears fruit every 2.5 years, and it comes in female and male types. One of its most interesting characteristics is that is has distinct female or male organs when the plant is mature. Üzen explains that typically this kind of tree lives for 150 years, and that the female plants are particularly hard to breed. No need to explain that sago palms are extremely valuable!

There is another plant here that resembles a cactus, which is very poisonous. Dr. Üzen explains that this plant has a milky substance stored inside that is so dangerous that a single drop could be lethal. Another notable resident of the botanical garden is aloe vera, which many women view as a beauty essential but which is not normally grown in Turkey.

These plants have no need for soil

Some of the plants that receive the most attention in the greenhouse are epiphytes, which need no soil to grow. These are plants that gain their nutrients from the moisture in the air and only need to find something on which to grow. Another object of extreme interest in this greenhouse is bean trees from the Amazon, whose beans measure about 50 centimeters each when fully grown. Of course, this is a tree which normally only grows in tropical climates. There are also pools present in these greenhouses where you can see a wide variety of tropical fish.

Lebanon’s lost tree: the cedar

There is a wide variety of trees from different climes that are grown in the botanical garden. One of these is the Lebanon cedar. You can also see the black pine and American chestnut trees. The presence of these unusual trees is enough to attract many birds to this garden; in addition to the previously mentioned parrots, you can also see baby falcons and hawks here. And of course, the birds that come to enjoy the fruits and the branches of these trees not only add color and dimension to this garden, but also help with the pollination of these trees. Dr. Üzen hangs feeders on tree branches to encourage birds to stop here.

‘They come to steal the plants of Anatolia’

When entering the botanical garden, you will see a large tree to your left. This is a Ginkgo, also known as the maidenhair tree. Interestingly, this is a tree which in the Far East is traditionally found planted in cemeteries, as cypress trees are in Turkey. One of the lesser known characteristics of this tree is that its leaves are supposed to be quite beneficial for people suffering from Alzheimer’s or other mental disorders.

Dr. Üzen says that people who have questions about the plants and trees they are growing in their homes can come to him with any kind of inquiry. He points out that there are lots of plants growing here which are about to disappear from Turkey altogether. This retired professor also says that there are some people who come to Turkey solely with the intention of taking samples of some of the plants and trees that grow here, and he advises the residents of Turkish villages and towns to be aware of this. Dr. Üzen also suggests that what people can do about this is to offer to sell samples of native Anatolian plants that they have grown themselves to those who are interested, but not allow the destruction or elimination of the country’s endemic plants and trees.