Treasures of Turkey 1

Jim Archibald completes his tour with a look at Anatolian flora


Turkey is a country rich in specialized environments that offer homes to an equally rich array of plants. Last month Horticulture explored a number of these botanical kingdoms; here we pick up where we left off, with Anatolia, the heart of the country and by far its largest geographic division.

A vast upland plateau with a severe continental climate, Anatolia is dry and fairly hot in summer and icy in winter. Its plants depend on winter snowfall for their moisture, sharing that characteristic with their counterparts across Iran into central Asia, Afghanistan, and western Pakistan.

These steppe plants represent a treasure trove of material for the genuine dry garden. Once established, they need absolutely no irrigation in summer, and in mild, wet areas must be carefully protected from excessive moisture between midsummer and spring. Bulb frames, covered scree beds, and well-ventilated alpine houses all come into play here. Those fortunate enough to garden in dry climates with cold winters may succeed in growing them unprotected.


While experienced and knowledgeable steppe-gardeners are still few and plants not always easy to get, I’m convinced that a greater understanding and use of these valuable species is bound to come. There are many to choose from. A number have already been introduced to Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. In the Denver area, the enthusiasm of Panayoti Kelaidis of the Denver Botanic Gardens can be credited with the presence of the west Anatolian Salvia hypargeia in the garden center trade. Its whorls of lavender-blue flowers rise on two-foot stems above neat clumps of gray feltlike leaves. Tall campanulas are available, too, including the free-seeding Michauxia campanuloides, lilylike in its branching stems of white flowers. Prostrate, azure-blue Veronica liwanensis and its dwarfer cut-leaved cousin V. oltensis, both wispy denizens of basalt crevices, have proved to grow so vigorously in Colorado that they can be used as a groundcover.

And there are more. Verbascum wiedaemannianum, another plant of very limited distribution in north Anatolia, will grow readily in northern New Mexico, while the commercial forms of pink Tulipa humilis, a local plant in southern Turkey often sold as T. pulchella and T. violacea, set seed and naturalized freely in a garden in Littleton, Colorado. And an old friend of mine grew the notoriously recalcitrant Oncocyclus steppe irises in the chaparral of his Arizona ranch.


Many steppe plants have developed a distinctive low-mounded habit and sharp, stiff leaves, partly in response to the climate and partly to protect themselves against the countless sheep and goats grazing the near-barren countryside. The pink-flowered acantholimons—the spiny thrifts—are among the more numerous of these hedgehog-hummocks. Many Astragalus adopt the same habit; I am particularly fond of members of the Hymenostegis Section, with dense, oblong, downy heads of purple, pink, or yellow flowers. Some of the genus Ebenus have similar silky heads of brilliant purple-pink flowers.

Most dwarf shrubs and perennials are not so well armed. Among the numerous sages, I especially like a woody, cut-leaved group that ranges from Salvia potentillifolia in the southwest to S. rosifolia near the Georgian border. Most are very local and almost all found only in Turkey. They vary in height, from mat-forming, lilac to pale yellow S. caespitosa to five-foot, shrubby S. heldreichiana, which boasts rich purple-blue flowers. Some of these are settling into cultivation. So too is S. multicaulis, a mat-forming sage whose stems are whorled with big calyces tinted the same purple as its small flowers. Large, bell-shaped, almost spurgelike greenish-yellow calyces are a feature of the spectacular S, kronenburgii.

Borages contribute greatly to the rich plant life of the steppes. Onosmas are everywhere, many of them yellow-flowered biennials, while some of the perennial species can range into pinks and blues. (None of the latter rival the white O. albo-roseum we already have in gardens.) Two Moltkia species, deep blue M. caerulea and intense yellow M. aurea, are neat and colorful, but the truly showy borage of the steppes is stout Arnebia densiflora, whose crowded heads of large pale yellow flowers rise above clumps of bristly leaves on one-foot-tall stems.

It is possible to find some fine flaxes, particularly in the west, where Linum hirsutum subsp. anatolicum is the core plant. It varies considerably in height and habit, with color in the lilac and pink range. To the east L. micronatum also takes on many forms. Road building has favored the spread of the opportunist horned poppies; they thrive briefly on disturbed ground and come in a spectrum of colors from yellow and orange to the splendid black-blotched scarlet blossoms of Glaucium grandiflorum.

Beyond these basic groups of steppe plants, a number of memorable individualists are on regular display: the tight silvered cushions of white Convolvulus compactus and rose-pink C. assyricus; Pterocephalus pinardii, with stemless pink scabious-like blossoms on gray-leaved mats; thistle-leaved Morina persica, whose flowers form pink and white whorls on two-foot stems; and dwarf rosy-red Acanthus dioscoridis, with spineless leaves that vanish in late summer.


Turkey has long been known for its bulb plants, and some of the most exciting flowers of the Anatolian plateau remain those that escape the summer heat by retreating into underground bulbs, corms, rhizomes, and tubers. Few plants can match the effect of the immense ebony and ivory blossoms of the dwarf Oncocyclus iris I. iberica subsp. elegantissima, or the strangeness of another Oncocyclus, I. paradoxa var. choschab, with its small, stiff black velvet falls below huge white lilac-veined standards. They are plants for the skilled specialist; breeders have not succeeded in transmitting their extraordinary characteristics to hybrid offspring. The same applies to the juno irises, among the first of the bulbs to flower. An intricate jewellike translucency is typical of the variable blossoms of I. persica and I. galatica, violet-blue I. stenophylla, and yellow I. caucasica.

Yet some steppe bulbs are as easy to grow as these are difficult. In their native place, thousands of pale Puschkinia scilloides and deep-blue scillas (Scilla bifolia and S. siberica subsp. armena) follow the snow patches up the mountains. Moisture drains from the hills into seasonally marshy hay meadows that are sometimes washed blue with Muscari armeniacum and later with red-purple orchids (Dacty-lorhiza spp.) and Gladiolus kotschyanus. Just because plants grow together at the same altitude, incidentally, does not mean that they are equally cultivatable. The beautiful pink Fritillaria alburyana is exceptionally difficult, but the yellow-tipped, mahogany-purple F. michailovskyi has taken to cultivation with enthusiasm.

A particular group of species is found in the Kurdish southeast, where nomads pitch their tents in the mountain valleys to graze their herds on the highest slopes. Some of these plants are limited to this corner of Turkey, others shared with neighboring Iran and Iraq. They include two races of Fritillaria crassifolia, F. c. kurdica and F. c. hakkarensis, whose fat bells come in yellow-greens and browns. Tall orange crown imperials (F. imperialis) and tiny Tulipa biflora with white, yellow-centered blossoms can be found here. The steep, stony slopes are also home to the yellow bells of F. minima, apricot to red-brown F. minuta, and purple-pink Colchicum kurdica. All these plants depend on water from melting snows high on the great mountains to the south of Lake Van, or the sea beyond the sunset, as it was called by the ancient Assyrians. H

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