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A World Beyond the Walls

The flora of Istanbul

Istanbul, straddling two continents and sandwiched between two seas, has a thrillingly varied flora which includes many plants seen nowhere else on the planet. Sadly, it is also critically endangered. Text and photographs by Andrew Byfield

  • Cottonweed, ‘Achillea maritima’, clings for dear life to a sandy beach along Istanbul’s northern shoreline. The cottonweed, previously known as 'Otanthus maritimus’ (Turkish: ‘çocukotu'), is related to yarrow and remains a relatively common, if declining, species

There is something rather special about getting to know a tract of land really well: one reason, perhaps, why people fall under the spell of islands so deeply. Within a tightly circumscribed patch, it’s possible to explore ever more intensely, and seemingly the more one looks, the more there is to discover. Such were the emotions for me during the 1990s, when I explored the woods and waysides of Istanbul province at length. Many a weekend I would head out into the fields and forests, leaving the city for a few short hours of peace. I discovered a world every bit as fascinating as the grand metropolis within the city walls, and would marvel unceasingly at wallowing water buffalo, green tree frogs sparkling as if dusted with gold, ancient walls severing the peninsula, age-old viaducts leaping deep valleys, and vast forests stretching out to the horizons.

There were flowers, too, in remarkable abundance and diversity in Istanbul’s fields and forests – some proving new to Turkey, others apparently new to science. It was the Turkish botanist Georges Vincent Aznavour who first shone a light on Istanbul’s rich and glorious flora. In 1885 he started systematically collecting plants in the Istanbul area, and over the course of 35 years amassed nearly 20,000 dried specimens, now housed in the Conservatoire Botanique in Geneva. Fortunately for us, he put pen to paper, writing the five-volume Prodrome de la Flore de Constantinople. Sadly for us, it remains unpublished. He died in Istanbul in November 1920, aged 58.

His legacy is nearly 50 species described by him that were new to science, and an eclectic range of dandelions, dead nettles and thymes named in his honour. In good part through Aznavour’s intense efforts within the province, we now know that over 2,000 native species occur within its 5,343 square kilometres. To put that into perspective, for British readers at least, that’s a third richer than the whole of Britain (with 1,489 species), in an area roughly the size of the English county of Norfolk, equivalent to just two per cent of Britain’s overall land surface. Furthermore, close to 30 species are largely or wholly confined to the province, including the glowing chequered rose-coloured Kadıköy meadow saffron, Colchicum chalcedonicum (remember, Chalcedon was the land of the blind, the first settlement in Istanbul, on the Asian shore), and the glorious, large orange heads of Hermann’s knapweed, Centaurea hermannii.

This floristic plenty owes its existence to a number of factors. For starters, the province is situated at the point where Europe and Asia collide, so, as an example, only here does the resolutely European common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, meet the Asian Byzantine snowdrop, G plicatus ssp byzantinus. This gives rise to Istanbul’s very own snowdrop hybrid, which goes by the wordy moniker G x valentinei nothosubsp subplicatus (page 69), a plant that is common locally in woods and along forest margins. It is imbued with a good dose of hybrid vigour, so the wild plants are often every bit as fine as garden raisings such as Mighty Atom and S Arnott.

But more is at play here than merely the meeting of two continents. Arguably more important still is the fact that the province lies sandwiched between two seas, the cool Black Sea and the rather more Mediterranean Sea of Marmara (effectively a satellite of the Aegean). Prevailing winds from the northeast (ie the Black Sea) blow cool, moisture-laden air onto the land, whereas the southern shores are more influenced by an altogether milder, drier climate. So in just a few tens of kilometres the vegetation morphs from dense, humid forest to more Mediterranean scrub.

An enormously diverse geology also plays a huge role in shaping the flora: everything from granites and pillow lavas to soft and hard limestones, shales and recent sands and peats is to be found, dating from the Ordovician period, 450 million years ago more or less, up to the present time. As any botanist will know, such diversity makes for great plant-hunting. Finally, a long and diverse history of land management has shaped a variety of vegetation types: four are especially outstanding, and I describe them here briefly, working from the wet north to the warm south.

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Other Highlights from Cornucopia 54
  • Going with the Flow

    Alice Greenway went to Istanbul to study Turkish and learnt to love swimming in the Bosphorus while she was at it

  • Ceramic Dynamics

    Two weighty tomes on the glories of Iznik pottery. Tim Stanley reviews the magnificent new Iznik book cataloguing the stupendous Ömer Koç Collection and a new study of Iznik’s Damascus offshoot.

  • Christmas in ruins

    Last Christmas, the art historian Francis Russell escaped the festivities for a hectic week revisiting the Aegean’s most fascinating historic sites, in readiness for a new, enlarged edition of his guide ‘Places in Turkey: A Pocket Grand Tour’. Here is his diary of an action-packed week

  • Beauty and the East

    The fine art photographer Brian McKee left Istanbul last July to explore the fabled sights of eastern Turkey. Renting a flat in the city of Van, he pored over a weighty survey by the scholar TA Sinclair and followed in his footsteps for 3,000 magnificent kilometres, around Lake Van, and north as far as the old Iron Curtain

  • Bread of Heaven

    Oozing delicious juices, irresistibly moreish, the ‘tirit’ covers a range of traditional Turkish soups and stews, both savoury and sweet, with slices of bread at their heart. Berrin Torolsan serves up the ultimate in comfort food

  • On the Threshold of a Dream: Küçüksu Kasrı

    Visitors arriving by water at the sultans’ pavilion of Küçüksu Kasrı could scarcely believe their eyes. As the gates on the Bosphorus swung open, they entered a world of head-turning theatricality, beauty and embellishment – a Dolmabahçe Palace in miniature that charmed a prince. By Berrin Torolsan. Interior photographs by Fritz von der Schulenburg

Buy the issue
Issue 54, June 2016 Dive into Summer
£12.00 / $15.50 / 511.97 TL
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