By Mary Keen, 02 Mar 2015
Going to Turkey for the first time, I had hoped for almond blossom and tazetta narcissi. But this was a coach tour of ancient sites, several a day in Lycia (on the Mediterranean coast). Do gardeners ever go away without searching for how others grow things? It was too early in the year, nor was it meant to be a garden tour, but I could not help half hoping for a sight of snowdrops, hellebores, crocus or scillas. I was not quite naive enough to expect Ottoman gardens. That legacy barely exists and most Turkish gardens consist of pots, stone and water, within secret courtyards. Balconies are everywhere, with a few pots on them, and I imagined there would be even more in summer.
When travelling with family or friends in foreign places, a shout for a flower stop is allowed, although occasionally rationed. There are no flower stops permitted on a coach tour, but you can spot a scatter of scarlet anemones from the windows of a moving bus and the occasional almond blossom.
At Aphrodisias we saw the red Anemone coronaria growing with as much acanthus as the carvings on the capitols. At the Temple of Aphrodite, there were leaves of giant fennel growing in wet wasteland. Best sighting for those with symptoms of botanical withdrawal was a forest of the tree spurge Euphorbia dendroides growing on the island of Kekova. Bright acid green against grey rocks falling to aqua water that barely covered the ruins of an old harbour, it was an unforgettable sight. In the Mediterranean, where it is a native plant, this euphorbia flowers from January to March but loses its leaves in summer.
What we mostly saw, and were surprised by, were numbers of tailored trees planted along the sides of the road. On the central reservation there were trimmed ranks of cypress, fir and pittosporum and at Pamukkale hawthorn bushes had been carved into crowns. Wood seems a feature of Turkish life, with many houses built from the pines that grow in the hills. There are poplars in distant landscapes among olives. Another surprise, because I think of poplars as watery types and olives as dry-loving trees. But the Turkish poet Nâzim Hikmet writes “beeches are Russian, the way poplars are Turkish”.
Although the region we toured has a Mediterranean climate, it receives more rain per year than London. There were no signs of irrigation for newly planted trees, but it must be baking in summer.
On roundabouts, patterns prevailed. Spiny hedgehog cacti were used as dot plants among swirls of white stones. More pebbles were used to trace the outline of a flower, with the simple petals filled in by pansies. This may be a very diluted version of the Ottoman legacy of pattern making with pebbles.
Perhaps public gardening becomes less important when the hills in April must be studded with the tulips that Turkey is so famous for, as well as thousands of other desirable flowers.
The Meander valley, which we drove through, is fertile, but in an agricultural way, with fields of artichokes and cotton, and the river is sadly diminished by being used for irrigation. But in a high pass over the Taurus mountains where we stopped for an all too regular “WC break” (every one and a half hours and usually at a service station), we walked across fertile soil to a pear orchard and stumbled on a couple of tiny white ploughed-over crocus.
I loved the trip. My architectural companion and I saw wonderful things and travelled with interesting people; I swam in the Mediterranean and in a rust-brown hot spring in the rain under the stars. But next time it will be coach-free, in April, and dedicated to flowers. The celebrated Fergus Garrett of Great Dixter is half Turkish. I can’t wait to ask him where to go, because Turkey is definitely a place to revisit.
Mary Keen travelled with RSD Travel.