Treasures of Turkey

A renowned plantsman looks at the rich flora of this fabled land


IN A FEW PARTS OF THE WORLD, circumstances of the remote past have combined to result in regional floras of incredible variety. As long as these are preserved, they will stimulate botanical investigation and provide a seemingly inexhaustible source of exciting plants for gardeners. Some such areas are California, Chile, southern Africa, and Turkey. All encompass many climates and have complicated land surfaces, which have not only enabled ancient plants to survive in specialized niches but have encouraged new ones to develop. Turkey is a center of diversity for many groups of horticultural interest—Astragalus (372 species), Crocus (32), Cyclamen (10), Fritillaria (31), Linum (38), Salvia (86), Verbascum (228), and many attractive small genera such as Aethionema, Ebenus, Glaucium, and Hyacinthella. For several years, my wife, Jenny, and I spent most of our summers traveling through this friendly and beautiful land to search for some of its special plants, photograph them, press dried specimens, and collect seeds in the hope that more of them could be established in cultivation.


Asiatic Turkey, or Anatolia, stretches over 300 miles from north to south, and almost 1,000 miles east to west from the Dardanelles to the borders of Iraq, Iran, and Armenia. It lies at around the same latitudes as a section from New York to Kansas City, or, more appropriately, from San Francisco to Denver. Rimmed by mountain ranges rising to over 13,000 feet, it can provide plants suited to conditions in almost all parts of North America. Turkey may be considered a Mediterranean country, but its mountains rise so abruptly from the sea that only a narrow strip is occupied by a typical Mediterranean association of pines (Pinus brutia and P. pinea) and oaks with a scrub of cistus, myrtle, pistacia, and juniper (Juniperus oxycedrus). Here and there are some populations of trees with more distant links. Maple-like Liquidambar orientalis has its relatives in the Chinese L. formosana and the North American sweet gum (L. styraciflua). Turkish snowbell trees (Styrax officinalis) do not differ much from the Californian population, and the privetlike ash relative Fontanesia phillyreoides crops up again in China with little change. Climbing rapidly to around 3,000 feet in the Taurus range, which runs for 500 miles along the south coast, Crimean pines (P. nigra var. caramanica) and several other junipers appear. There are fine forests of cedars (Cedrus libani) often mixed with silver firs (Abies cilicica).


Just as the ancient Greeks influenced the cultures of Caria, Lycia, and Pamphylia, kingdoms now commemorated in the names of their plants, so the flowers of the Aegean have a foothold in southwestern Turkey. Cyclamen graecum and many others are shared with the adjacent Greek islands, but there are also exclusive species like pink, autumn-flowering C. mirabile and C. trochopteranthum, with its distinct, honey-scented, carmine-pink flowers. In spring, the western mountains are splashed with purple Aubrieta deltoidea, parent of the cultivated forms, and there is a confusing profusion of different crocuses, including the parents of the widely grown Crocus chrysanthus hybrids. On one or two mountains, high up among the last of the cedars and pines, grow the beautiful, little, blue-flowered bulbs, the chionodoxas (Chionodoxa luciliae, C. forbesii, and C. sardensis), but there are probably more of these in gardens now than in the wild. Here and there, there are small yellow fritillaries (Fritillaria carica and others), scarlet tulips (Tulipa armena var. lycica), and white ornithogalums, to be followed by muscari and many fine herbaceous perennials, such as Thalictrum orientale, about one foot high and summer dormant, with petaloid flowers in white to deep lilac. Especially local are the plants of the limestone crevices of the Taurus. Woolly yellow Ajuga bombycina, pink Geranium glaberrimum, and the tiny, silvered, azure-blue alkannas challenge the expert cultivator, but the dwarf Verbascum dumulosum is more amenable. With its low mounds of felted foliage and short yellow spikes, it is one of the finest dry stone-wall plants. In nature, it is only known from the isolated hilltop ruins of Termessus, a city Alexander the Great did not trouble to conquer on his eastward march. Last time I visited, I could find no trace of it. A desire to tidy this spectacular archaeological site had resulted in the enthusiastic use of herbicide. Fortunately, the Madonna lilies (Lilium candidum) had survived.

Moving along the Cilician Taurus, there is an increasingly Levantine influence until in the Amanus Mountains, which turn south at right angles to the main range. Some plants are shared only with Syria and Lebanon. The elegant, glaucous yellow-green bells of Fritillaria alfredae appear here, as does tiny, pale blue, bulbous Iris histrio. Sumptuous, magenta, chocolate-blotched Cyclamen pseudibericum only grows here. Among the oak scrub on the crests of the hills are colonies of the extraordinary, summer-dormant Helleborus vesicarius. Unlike any other hellebore, this produces huge, inflated seed capsules that dry to fragile parchment balloons before they break off in the breeze, blowing up from the sea, to sail toward Gaziantep and the Syrian Desert.


In the north, Turkey borders the Black Sea. The climate here is wet. Tea and hazelnuts are grown on the terraced hillsides, and the wild plants come from the north and west. Dense deciduous forests of beech (Fagus orientalis) with oaks, maples, ash, and sweet chestnut clothe the steep slopes of the Pontus foothills. There is often a lush undergrowth of cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) and large-leaved ivy (Hedera colchica), with evergreen Daphne pontica and many ferns, such as Pteris cretica and Asplenium scolopendrium. A multitude of plants familiar to gardeners in moist, temperate areas grow here. In early spring, near the coast, there is purple Iris lazica with its clumps of broad, glossy foliage. Unlike its Mediterranean cousin, I. unguicularis, it loves the stony, acid clay of our wet Welsh garden, and flowers all winter. On woodland banks there are primroses in lilac to magenta-pink shades (Primula vulgaris subsp. sibthorpii), carmine Cyclamen coum, and snowdrops (Galanthus rizehensis and G. ikariae). The hellebores (Helleborus orientalis), ancestors of most of the garden hybrids, are usually green-flushed whites and creams, occasionally with a pinkish tinge. In the west the influence is Balkan, with speckled martagon lilies and purple Clematis viticella, but toward the east new plants occur. Purest blue Omphalodes cappadocica grows along the woodland margins, and in a few places there is the distinct relic Primula megaseifolia. Many such species are shared with adjacent Georgia and Abkhazia.

This is the land of the Turkish rhododendrons and lilies, where the vegetation resembles that of the Pacific Northwest or southwestern China. It was the ancient kingdom of Colchis, from which Jason carried off the golden fleece and the princess Medea. It remains quite a remote area, where the brown bears roam through dense forests of spruce (Picea orientalis), fir (Abies nordmanniana), birch (Betula medwediewii), and rowan (Sorbus subfusca). In fall, the hillsides flame briefly with the dying leaves of the deciduous yellow azalea (Rhododendron luteum) and the magnificent, eight-foot-high Vaccinium arctostaphylos. The other Turkish rhododendrons are evergreen. In high, open sites or in frost pockets where the widespread, lower-altitude R. ponticum has been seared off by the cold, pink R. smirnovii predominates. In the thick, soft, white felt that clothes its young shoots and lower leaf surfaces, it recalls R. yakushimanum. Also hardier than R. ponticum is R. ungernii, but this prefers more humid areas or more shade. Although these species produce natural hybrids, in its purest forms R. ungernii is most distinct, with very large leaves, and trusses of broad, pure white bells produced after all the others, in July. Growing well above the timberline, at up to 10,000 feet, creamy white R. caucasicum forms dense, low thickets.


Gardeners in the Northeast, where cold winters and humid summers restrict plant choice, might find inspiration in some entirely natural plant associations in the mountain woodlands of this corner of Turkey. In shade, the early-flowering, big-leaved borages—lilac-blue Trachystemon orientalis, sky-blue and pink Symphytum asperum, and rich blue Brunnera macrophylla—create a solidly impressive groundcover. The leafy, three-foot sages, violet Salvia forsskaolii and pale yellow S. glutinosa, might gently enliven the summer. In woodland openings and subalpine meadows, the massed, soft lavender blues of Campanula lactiflora back black-eyed, intense magenta Geranium psilostemon and occasional blue-and-white columbines (Aquilegia olympica). Along streams, the huge, long-rayed, brassy yellow daisies of Telekia speciosa jostle with the imperial purple bells of Campanula latifolia. The lilies grow at these middle altitudes. Here and there in the woods above Trabzon are purple-centered, yellow Lilium ciliatum and sweetly scented, sulphur L. monadelphum var. armenum. Up near the Georgian border is the stunning, creamy L. kesselringianum. Smaller L. ponticum, varying from speckled butter yellow to orange, occasionally almost all suffused with chocolate, is most numerous above the timberline. Often it grows in the high, steeply sloping hay meadows to be backbreakingly scythed by teams of men in late summer. The hay is a rich herbaceous mixture with white anemones (A. narcissiflora), pink bisort (Persicaria bistorta subsp. carnea) and masterwort (Astrantia maxima), lavender-blue scabious (Scabiosa caucasica), and rich violet-blue cranesbills (Geranium ibericum). After the hay is cut, the big, rosy purple goblets of Colchicum speciosum push through.


Some of the plants of the alpine turf are difficult to grow anywhere in cultivation. Few gardeners have cultivated creamy white Daphne glomerata, egg-yolk yellow, autumn-flowering Crocus scharojanii, or tiny pink Cyclamen parviflorum. The white-powdered, cool lavender-blue, high alpine Primula longipes verges on the impossible. On the cold cliffs and on tussocks in the melt-water streams of a few mountaintops, it grows with its roots in freezing water to remind it of the last ice age, when perhaps it and the other aristocratic nivalid primroses were more numerous than today. Maybe a gardener in Alaska might grow them one day. Its companion, the red-purple to violet oxlip, P. amoena, is more growable in cool climates. Of course, not all the local plants are difficult. The dainty orange poppy Papaver lateritium, though restricted in nature, is an easy garden perennial. More widespread on drier slopes, ivory Campanula alliariifolia and spiny, silvery Eryngium giganteum can almost be considered aggressive in some gardens.

Finding inspiration in the plants of Turkey is easy enough; finding the plants themselves can be more of a challenge. But it’s simply a matter of knowing where to look. Most plant societies keep seed lists of unusual plants-one of the benefits of membership is access to the society’s yearly seed exchange. The North American Rock Garden Society is a good source of Turkish plants, and their seed list is available for review at their Web site, Plant hunters themselves are also a good source for hard-to-find plants, and, happily, many maintain catalogs, Web sites, and mailing lists. For instance, Jim Archibald himself keeps a seed catalog ( For those willing to look around a bit-it’s no hike through the Taurus-the plants of Turkey are there for the planting.-Meghan Lynch

For more suggestions of specialty seed and bulb catalogs, visit

Further Reading

The Explorer’s Garden

Daniel J. Hinkley

Timber Press, 1999

The Plant Hunter’s Garden

Bobby J. Ward

Timber Press, 2004

(See review on page 76)

Naturalist in Western China

E. H. Wilson

Everyman Publishers, 1987

Plants from the Edge of the World

Mark Flanagan and Tony Kirkham

Timber Press, 2005

Growing Bulbs

Martyn Rix

Timber Press, 1989


Amid all this luxuriance, there is a Mediterranean enclave in the deep, dry valley of the Coruh River. Olives are grown near the valley bottom and there are smoke bushes (Cotinus coggygria) on the slopes. Origanum rotundiflorum, an excellent garden plant with heads of drooping, greenish cream bracts, grows here and there in a confusion of beautiful white campanulas, centered on C. betulifolia, exclusive to the igneous cliffs of the Coruh drainage. Campanula troegerae has flat, wide-open flowers and grayish toothed leaves, which are shared by C. corihensis, whose big, pink-flushed flowers are more conventionally bell-shaped. Here is the last outpost of the hardy Pelargonium endlicherianum, whose flowers have two large, butterflylike, carmine petals. This is widespread across central Anatolia, but the larger, Kurdish P. quercetorum grows only among the oak-scrub of the southeast. Their nearest relatives grow thousands of miles away in the Cape of South Africa. H

The second and concluding part of this article will appear in the May/June 2005 issue.

Related Posts:

  • No Related Posts

Leave a Reply