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Mysteries of a wild fruit: Mahlep

Mahlep treeMany plants play an important part in our daily lives. Of some we know the taste and scent well, yet without being able to recognise the seed, leaf, or fruit if we saw them. For example, how many of us would recognise aniseed which lends its characteristic flavour to biscuits and pastries, or knows that salep, that delicious winter drink, is made from the roots of wild orchids? Mahlep is another such elusive ingredient, whose fragrance and flavour we all recognise, yet few of us know its origin, although the seeds might be familiar to some. Mahlep is the kernel of a species of wild cherry, Prunus mahaleb, also known as the St. Lucie cherry, which grows everywhere in Turkey that edible cherry trees flourish. In a way the mahlep cherry is the mother of cultivated cherries, since if you wish to grow the latter, you must used the mahlep cherry as grafting stock. Farmers are no longer interested in cultivating the mahlep, partly because the economic returns are too low, and also because gathering the fruit and processing it is labourious work.

For this reason the tree is becoming steadily rarer, as those growing in the wild are either used as grafting stock for table or sour cherries, or chopped down for fire wood. Only occasionally are they left as boundaries between fields. Yet mahlep has a considerable market, since there is a high demand in the pharmaceutical and food industries, and in the Turkish province of Tokat the Agricultural Department is endeavouring to increase the number of mahlep cherries by growing them in its nurseries. As yet this has made little impact, however, and moreover, it is not known as yet whether those artificially cultivated have the same characteristics and crop levels as the wild variety. The mahlep cherry of Tokat produces the largest crop of any in Turkey. For example, it also grows in Geyve in Adapazarı, but these trees do not produce a large enough crop to be worth harvesting.Mahlep seeds are a traditional herbal remedy, widely used in the past for the treatment of malaria, and today in the production of aspirin, which is contained in the white part of the seed, and as an ingredient of numerous medicinal syrups.

Mahlep fruiısThey are also used as a flavouring for vermouth and the pastry rings sold in Turkey on some religious feast days, and in the perfume industry. Diren Wine Company, whose vineyards were originally established by missionaries of the Jesuit School founded in Tokat in 1881, has been producing wine in Tokat since 1958. One of its products is mahlep liqueur wine, which first imparts a tart flavour, immediately followed by a treacle-like taste deriving from the mahlep. With an alcohol content of 18 degrees, this delicious wine is classified as a vermouth. Despite its popularity, production of mahlep liqueur wine has been declining every year owing to inadequate supplies of mahlep.The mahlep cherry flowers at the end of March, and begins to shed its blossom from the tenth of April. The fruit, which may be either red or black, ripens at the end of June. The fruit is usually harvested by scraping them from the branches, a method which is labour saving but damages the tree and results in a reduced crop the following year.

The recommended method is to shake the branches so that the ripe fruit falls. The fruit and leaves are dried in the sun for a week and then tossed into the air with rakes on a windy day, so that the dried leaves blow away, leaving only the fruit behind.The dried mahlep cherries sell for extremely low prices today compared to even the recent past. The price paid to farmers for mahlep has slumped to 3 percent of its 1977 price, a situation that has seriously affected traditional growers, such as those in the village of Gazi Osman Paşa, where cultivation of mahlep began a century ago. The first mahlep trees here were planted by Hüseyin Bey of the Latifoğulları family and by the Yağcıoğulları family, descendants of the Gazi Osman Paşa, hero of the Battle of Plevna (1877), after whom the village is named. Yet today the farmers of the village cannot afford to devote much time to the care of their mahlep trees.

Mahlep is as beautiful as it is useful, and is sometimes grown in gardens for its decorative spring blossom.


Turkey's rare orchids
The delicate beauty of orchids fires enthusiasts, and as one of the largest families of flowering plants in the world, searching out its vast number of species is an endless journey of discovery and delight. The orchid comes in many strange and lovely forms, particularly in the tropics where it is widespread, and varies greatly in size and appearance in different climatic regions. Both the beauty and long life of cut orchids makes this family of flowers the favourite of florists throughout the world, and for many tropical countries orchids are a major source of income.

Although the diversity of species diminishes as you move away from the tropics, this is only relative, and the orchid enthusiast can still find many species in more temperate climes. No less than 148 different orchid species grow in Turkey, for instance, and 40 of these are endemic, that is found in Turkey alone. Turkey is home to almost as many orchid species as grow in the entire European continent, and has more endemic species than any other country in the region. In terms of its flora Turkey has been likened to a continent in its own right. Altogether there are 12.000 known species of plants in Europe, while Turkey alone has approximately three-quarters of this number, of which 3000 are endemic, accentuating the importance of the country's biodiversity.

Most orchids flower in spring, so although it is possible to find blooming orchids at any season in Turkey, in the spring months the hills and mountainsBarlia Robertiana are brightly carpeted with orchids of all colours and sizes. They grow in such varied habitats that it is possible to find orchids on the alpine meadows of the Kaçkar Mountains, in the Black Sea region, in the maquis scrub of the Aegean, and in the pine forests high in the Taurus Mountains along the Mediterranean coast. But of all the places in Turkey where orchids are to be found, it is the southwestern province of Muğla which is home to the most species, at nearly seventy. In March and April at least five or six orchid species bloom on coastal meadowland, and if you return to the same meadows a couple of weeks later you will find their place taken by five or six different species.

Himantoglossum caprinumThose to whom the word orchid conjures up an image of the exotic species sold in florists may not immediately recognise orchids when they come across them while wandering in the Turkish countryside. Less flamboyant and extravagant in size than their tropical cousins they might be, but equally exquisite when examined at close quarters. The tiny purple flowers of the green-winged orchid (Orchis morio), for instance, are captivating. As you walk along be on the lookout, too, for the spiralling flower spike of lady's tresses (Spiranthes spiralis), a frail plant seldom more than 10 cm tall, its small flowers like dancing butterflies. These miniature flowered orchids open the door into the magical world of Turkish orchids.

At the other end of the spectrum are such large and striking species as the giant orchids of the genus Himantoglossum (left side) which grow to 50 cm in height, and Anacamptis pyramidalis with over thirty flowers on each stem. The Anatolian orchid (Orchis anatolica), a species named after Anatolia, again has all the beauty of a butterfly in flight. Of them all the most intriguing are the members of the bee orchid genus Ophrys, characterised by flowers with an uncanny resemblance to bees or other insects. This deception attracts bees and insects to the flowers as colour and scent do to other flowers, illustrating the devious ways of nature in ensuring the propagation of living things.






In Gardens of Fleeting Love:

'In early spring the gardens first turn purple. Wistaria festooned over gates, lilac reaching upwards, and purple violets a breath away from the soil. Hyacinths, primulas and dahlias. Smoke trails from ferryboats in chilly parks. Stately lilies. Purple passes first through the gardens, and only then does red become sovereign.'

So writes Nazan Bekiroglu in her book Purple Ink. Looking about us in spring we can see that she is right. Purple does indeed first pass through the gardens of Istanbul and the islands, with wistaria, pansies, lilac, Judas blossom and purple lilies, as spring begin awakening the body and spirit with shades of purple. Spring delves deep into the earth, spurring on rebirth, and from the dark blue of the cold winter ushers in the purple and mauve transition into the red of summer.

Those who know the language of flowers can tell you that violets symbolise secret love, red roses fiery love, camellias proud love and wistaria fleeting love, although one might suppose a creeper to mean 'I cling to you, I will not leave you'. According to some the colour purple represents sorrow and pain, and they might say that even doomed love is better than no love at all. But could a lover say the same? Could the girl whom Attilâ Ilhan describes as having 'Wistaria ringlets, translucent eyelids' have said it?

Wistaria, alias Wisteria sinensis, does not like growing in pots, but needs deep soil for its long powerful roots. It loves damp climates and can grow up to 15 m in height. It came originally from China. Who knows when and moved by what fleeting passion an anonymous lover decided to take this plant with him on his long and arduous journey to Istanbul. In time the stranger became the most luxuriant flower in every quarter of Istanbul, garbing wooden houses, narrow streets and hills in a profusion of mauve and purple flowers, and scenting the air with its elusive fragrance.

On the Princes Islands and along the Bosphorus shores, in Üsküdar, Beylerbeyi, Kuzguncuk, Ortaköy and Emirgan, wistaria lends beauty even to concrete walls, compelling them to speak, as Edip Cansever writes in his spring complaints: 'Wistaria deciphered the speech / Of the ruined stone walls.' What loves have left purple traces in which memories in Istanbul's wistaria adorned streets? Perhaps in those undivided moments neither within nor entirely without time that Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar associates with purple, someone was awaited in the windows of wistaria clad houses. In her memoirs entitled The Wistaria Clad House, Turkish novelist Halide Edip, a prominent figure of the Turkish War of Independence and a friend of Atatürk, tells us,

'For more than half a century this house has entered the dreams of a small child, sometimes every night. The windows overlooking the garden at the back and the tall narrow windows on the landings of the double staircase are festooned with wistaria and in the late afternoon sun the glass shines like a plate of fire through the purple flowers.'

The poet Can Yücel describes the melancholy that is attributed to purple:
'Wistaria / Wistaria... Purple Purple Purple / Its tears descend the wall of my life / Descend Descend.'

He is right. There are purple lives, purple novels, purple personalities. The great philosopher Nietzsche was purple, and Ahmet Haşim who was enamoured of the evening was purple. Marilyn Monroe passed through this world in a lavender shade of purple. Anna Karenina is a fictional heroin of purple. But purple is also a colour which does not only submit to loss and is not only the colour of sorrow but also of sacredness, in symbols of past and present. Purple is a symbol of empires, religions, death, attraction and passionate love that has been used by mystics, great artists and thinkers. In ancient Greece purple was the colour of wise men, and in Hindu culture it is a symbol of the sixth shakra and used to open the third eye.

In dream interpretation purple means that the dream'se troubles are at an end. In astrology purple is the colour of Sagittarius, which symbolises the half man, half horse Santor, and wistaria is one of the flowers that brings good fortune to those born under this sign. Researchers into colour today attribute the mystery of purple to its being a combination of red, which spurs people to action, and blue, which brings tranquility, thus imparting equilibrium to the human spirit.

Purple passes first through the gardens, and only then does red become sovereign. Wistaria blooms before its leaves come out, and this spring will once again adorn the city with its beautiful flowers and fill the air with its delicate scent. If the love it brings is fleeting, so be it. Let the song of wistaria fill the streets, the song of purple and mauve loves:

'Hold my hands in that wistaria garlanded street/
Caress my hair again, let me sleep on your knees.'


Let us have fun,
let us all dance and play,
for it is tulip time!

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Aynalıkavak Kasrı with tulips

Paeans to the tulip resounded in the air. In İstanbul, in the early 18th century, the Sultan and the populace rejoiced in music, festivities, parades and dances. Countless tulips of all varieties with such poetic names as Blue Pearl, Light of Dawn, Ruby Drop and The Divine Throne adorned the Ottoman imperial capital. It was a period of peace, lavish entertainment and creativity. An early 20th century historian gave it the name of The Tulip Age. This perfect name will endure, because it encapsulates the spirit of a halcyon epoch of about twelve years during which the tulip was the symbol of the sensuality of the creative arts... and the joy of life as an art.


In the reign of Sultan Ahmed III, following more than four centuries of war, conquest and defeat, the Ottomans suddenly decided to enjoy la dolce vita. The ruling establishment turned away from military engagement and diplomacy to wallow in wine, women and song. Carpe diem: Seize the day. All they wanted was to create Paradise on Earth - the pleasure Principle became their doctrine. The French Ambassador, de Villeneuve, reported that the Turkish Court seemed perpetually bent upon some new excursion, continually filing by in gorgeous cavalcades or floating upon the waves of the Bosphorus or the Golden Horn. In eight months, after repeated requests, he was able to see the Grand Vizier once - and the famous Grand Vizier Damat İbrahim Paşa from Nevşehir talked to him only about tulips.

tulip5.jpg (28801 bytes)Tulips were ubiquitous - not only in the gardens of the Topkapı Palace and of wealthy people, but also in the backyards and window-sills of the houses where the poor lived. Artists glorified this time-honoured Turkish flower on tiles, fabrics, embroideries, miniature paintings, book illuminations, head-dress and slippers, rowboats and tombstones, painted glass and household utensils. As a leitmotif, it enlivened all the creative genres.

The tulip, indigenous to parts of Central Asia Minor where the Turks had already held sway for many centuries, stood as the premier flower of the Ottomans. It even acquired a religious significance because, in the Arabic script that the Ottoman used, the name of the tulip, lâle, bears a resemblance to Allah. The etymology of the word tulip, however, may be traced to dulband, or turban, which European and British travellers likened to the shape of the flowers.

This Turkish flower was already cherished in Ottoman gardens, visual arts, and classical poetry by the time Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent ascended the throne in 1520. His supreme judge, perhaps the greatest legal mind of Ottoman Islam, Ebussuud Efendi had a passion for flowers, especially for tulips. In 1554, Ambassador Busbecq came to the court of Süleyman the Magnificent as the envoy of Austrian Emperor and was struck by the varieties and the vibrancy of flowers in the Ottoman imperial capital. He wrote:

We saw everywhere an abundance of flowers... The Turks are so fond of flowers that even the marching troops have their orders not to trample on them.

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Aynalıkavak Kasrı with tulips

Busbecq was especially astonished to see the tulip, a flower unknown to Europeans. He took some bulbs with him back to Vienna where, in 1559, the Swiss botanist Konrad Gesner saw garden tulips for the first time, and the first picture of the tulip, which he described as a big reddish flower similar to a red lily, appeared in his Book of Garden Flowers in 1561. Later the celebrated Dutch botanist Clusius obtained a number of bulbs from Busbecq, developed many new varieties - and in a few decades, tulips had triumphantly fired the European imagination. In the 1630, a craze often referred to as Tulipomania swept through Holland. Vagaries of the tulip trade resulted in vast fortunes made or lost. Yet, the aesthetic experience of tulips has endured in Holland for more than 350 years now.

tulip6.jpg (16260 bytes)The Tulip Ottomania erupted as the second decade of the 18th century drew to a close. Ottomans were breeding their own varieties and importing dozens more from Holland and elsewhere. By the mid 1720s they had close to 900 varieties each bearing a special name. A later document states that there were as many as 1.750 varieties. Some were sold for 1.000 gold pieces each. When a foreign ambassador brought but lost a special new breed intended as a gift for the Sultan, town criers strolled through İstanbul streets offering a huge reward, a fortune, to finder. It was never found – or never turned in.

But the creative spirit as well as the excesses of the Age dwarfed the tulip fields. Festivals were held lasting the proverbial 40 days and 40 nights. İstanbul, the ancient city that already boasted of 25 centuries of sovereign history, kept vibrating with the sounds, sights and pleasures of the revelries organized for its wealthy residents and sometimes for the entire populace. A chronicler reports that 1.500 cooks prepared for 100.000 people a day sumptuous food made of 16.000 chickens, geese and turkeys and 15000 cauldrons of meat pilav were consumed.

At night 15 to 25 thousand lanterns illuminated the city and 5000 to 7000 firecrackers decked the skies. Music, dance, mock battles, comedy, acrobatics, magic shows, javelin games, torch pageants- an inexhaustible diversity of entertainment.

During the day, parades with fascinating floats and displays went through the ancient hippodrome and some of the main avenues. Guilds of artisans, one after another presented their works and wares. The whole city was enchanted.

The spirit of the age revelled in new lilting compositions, in miniature paintings (particularly those by the greatest stylist Levni), in dazzling decorative arts, in erotic and hedonistic poetry, especially the cheerful verses of Nedim (who rhapsodised: Let’s laugh and play, let’s enjoy the world to the hilt.)

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Miniature from the Tulip Age

In about twelve years, the Tulip Age gave new direction and brave new dimensions to many Ottoman arts. This was also the period which intensified relations with Europe. İstanbul witnessed the emergence of European architectural styles-and Ottoman influence would lead to the European fad that came to be known as Turquerie. The Tulip Age also ushered in the printing press for the publication of books in the Turkish language. Impetus was given to science, libraries, translation, and intellectual exploration.
All the merriment in the world could not distract the poverty-stricken people. Too much circus and not enough bread led to a plebeian uprising, and the Sultan was toppled. In 1730 the Tulip Age came to an abrupt end. But the glory of its arts endures - and the love for tulips.
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