Sunday, October 26, 2008

It Was Only a Matter of Time...

I'll take a short break from garden talk to tell you about a recent development in Turkey. Night before last, I went to post an entry into my blog. Instead of the page, I got the dreaded read and white screen shown below, which means that has taken its place with the thousand-plus websites, including include Geocities, YouTube, and most recently, Worldpress, which have been blocked in Turkey.

The reason for the ban was not immediately clear but came out later - there were a few blogs that ran criticisms of a Turkish Islamic Creationist. It's very easy to get a website blocked here if you have friends in the right places especially, or if there is any perceived insult to the founder of the country. Never mind what an excellent opportunity Youtube and blogs are to promote Turkey, her culture, her music, her traditions, her touristic potential. Instead, we have just one more reason to be embarrassed.
Luckily, almost everyone knows how to get around these bans, which makes them all the more absurd... Unless the government goes the route of Iran and blocks all the proxy sites, Turks will continue to participate in the world via the internet, and I'll keep posting!
Update (November 24): The blocking of blogspot has been lifted for now, though other sites remain blocked. Responding to a question about internet censorship, the prime minister (!) said: "I can get into YouTube." I guess he uses proxy sites too...
(Türkçe yorumu yok, gerek de yok zaten, bu pencereyi çok iyi biliyoruz ya offfff...) :-P

Old House Revisited

A bit of morbid curiosity overtook me a few days back, and I decided to go see what had become of my old house. The one bit of consolation after having my house expropriated was that all the area was to be turned into a large park, and if there's anything Istanbul needs, it's more green space. This is a city where you will see people from the villages having a picnic, or just sitting, in overgrown empty lots or on the green embankments of highways, simply because they want an alternative to cement. The officials from the city were talking about people from the gardens department, and though a voice inside told me to take that with a grain of salt, there have been some good projects in Istanbul during the last few years, including honest attempts to make it a greener, more livable place. Of course as far as I was concerned, my garden was a very liveable place. And the empty lots next door were full of trees of several kinds. Not only was it a nice place for me, it was a habitate for all sorts of wildlife - birds like this shrike that visited one day, as well as protected species like martens. Not purple martins, but martens, the large ferret-like mammal. They would play (and fight viciously) at night and sometimes wake us with the strange twittering cries.

The last time I'd gone there, the surorunding area was still a wasteland and the house I lived, along with its garden, were still intact, because as private property it took longer to expropriate (the remaining areas were in the hands of religious foundations).

So I showed up that afternoon to find...this! This, apparently is the current concept of a "park" in Istanbul. I suppose people don't want kids' feet to become too accustomed to actual ground, given that they have to live on a cement substrate. Another green (if rather unkempt) habitat has been turned into a concrete expanse. Our door to the yard/garden was directly across from the old single-story house on the left. Almost all of the trees that were on the land have been removed (on the pretext that "children might climb them"). For a people that have mostly rural roots, a paradoxical attitude indeed. They did leave the one walnut tree that used to be in the mosque's garden.
As for the are where my own garden was, that was being done away just as I arrived; the workmen hauling out the rubble that was my house. The fig trees were all gone, and the next target of the bulldozer was the large black mulberry tree (in the background), which had been famous in the neighborhood for years. This area will no doubt become an extension of the concrete expanse as well. Istanbul has done some very nice park restorations, Gülhane comes to mind. But evidently where tourists are not involved, greenery just not so important.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Last Hurrah

Well, as summer winds down into autumn, I suppose I should post a picture of my upper flower garden as it is at the end of its first year. It's been another year of surprises, pleasures and disappointments as usual, but considering the rush job that it was and the stress to all the plants involved, it could have been a lot worse. Some plants, notable a beautiful sage I grew from seed brought from the island of Samos, went into exuberant growth in the spring only to succumb once the weather got hot. My attempt to start my favorite Pacific coast iris here seems to have predictably failed, though there seems to be something rather iris-like popping up where I don't remember planting any iris...still I'll let it go a while before I get my hopes up. Hosta "Sum and Substance" looks like crap, having fed several generations of fat, happy snails, but is hanging in there. The Cardiocrinums I brought are down but fine. Well, at least one of them is. And the Sarcococca confusa, or sweet box that I brought 2 years ago has flower buds on it. Other successes include two very nice Symphytums, a Buddleia japonica, several Sempervivums, Euphorbia "Emberglow," Salvia guaranitica "Black and Blue," and Verbena bonariense, which I may or may not be sorry I planted!
Autumn was always a mixed time for me as a youngster growing up in Iowa. The warm dry days and crisp cold nights gave us beautiful fall color. But I always greeted it with mixed feelings; the brilliant maples, blooming chrysanthemums and sweet scent of fallen sycamore leaves also meant the torture of having to force my feet, which had spread out over a summer spent 99% barefoot, into tight leather shoes, the "Back to School" sales (it always seemed those ads were devised for no purpose other than to rub it in), and seemingly endless months of icy winter. And I thought chrysathemums smelled awful anyway. I used to hate marigolds, but as the weather started getting nippy and they started to go ratty, I could get a little weepy even for them.

I'm not completely over this. Even though, as the following post will attest, moving to the west coast of the US and then to Istanbul has forced a bit of change to my attitudes, I still tend to see the coming of fall in terms of what favorite plants are putting out their last blooms, will soon ome to an end, or what last hopes will soon be snuffed out by an early frost. Like this bottle gourd. I bought the seeds in spring. Late spring. Okay, May. And then came home and planted them, as the weather was already starting to get pretty warm. If I'd planted them a little earlier, the roots would have gotten better established before the heat kicked in. And as they say in Greece, "If my grandma had b_ _ _ _, she'd be my grandpa." So the plants started putting out gourds way too late, and now the lower leaves have dried off; I'm hoping for just one ripe gourd before either frost or rot does the vine in. I guess I can always stir-fry it.

Many of our favorite annuals are actually tropical plants, so for them, fall is like a bad joke. I what they would think, if they could think, about the sudden change in the weather just as they're at their peak growth:"What the hell? I didn't evolve for this!" Luckily most of them manage to produce seed early enough to ensure a new generation, if I'm diligent enough to collect it. Even as curmudgeonly I can be about fall, I have to admit that for some, the seed pods are half the fun. One is Dolichos lablab, which incidently combines, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful words of botanical Latin with one of the silliest sounding. It's also known as hyacinth bean for its beautiful hot pink, fragrant flowers. But the pods are just as interesting; purple, shiny with an almost metallic glint. They'll soon fade to a most inelegant gray and shrivel to let me know the seed is ripe.

I suppose the quintessential fruit of fall in Turkey is the pomegranate, or nar in Turkish. It was an exotic fruit for me when I was growing up, and my mother still remembers being thrilled as a five year-old girl in Greece, when she lived in a house with pomegranates growing right outside her bedroom window. I'm cheating a bit as this isn't actually my pomegranate tree, it's down below in Sevil's garden. Our pomegranate flowers but generally doesn't set fruit and when it does, the fruit is inedible. I just keep it around for esthetic value. Though it would have more esthetic value if it was covered with beautiful fruit! Other fruits of autumn here include hurma (Japanese persimmon), muşmula (medlar), ayva (quince) and hünnap (Jujube). But pomegrantes are definitely queen this time of year; there are many different varieties, some with pale pink seeds and a sweet flavor, and others with deep red kernels and a delicious tartness. To taste the best ones you need to go to Antakya down south (or have friends from there), where they grow pomegranates that weigh nearly a kilo, some with kernels as large as large corn. Not only do they eat them, they boil the juice of the sour ones into a thick syrup, nar ekşisi, which is used in a variety of dishes. Ours isn't all that special, but I suppose it works as a segue into the next installment!


The dictionary defines the Turkish word sonbahar simply as "autumn," but it's an interesting word if you look a bit deeper. "Son" means "last." The standard definition of "bahar" is spring, but "last spring" sounds a little strange too. It seems the Persians looked at things a bit differently; Summer and Winter were the main seasons, and in between them were the bahars. People in temperate climates usually thing of spring as the time when nature wakes up, and fall as the season where everything drops seed and dies, or drifts into hibernation to survive the long winter. I was not much of a fall person for a long time, because in Iowa, as beautiful as the asters were agsinst the falling leaves, I knew all to well what came on its heels - several months of snow and subzero weather.

But in a Mediterranean climate or even those climates that approach the Mediterranean order of things, the "bahar" concept makes more sense. Bahars are times of respite between the gloom and cold of winter and the blazing heat of summer; times that many plants take care of. Here perhaps the most important element of fall is rain, the return of constant moisture. We do get some rain in the summer too, but it is hit or miss, and most native plants here seem to know better than to depend too heavily on it. And as the rain falls in increasing volume, the garden is once again full of action. Much of it is subtle, some is invisible. Seeds are swelling throwing up tentative shoots; bulbs are sending their roots out and will continue to do so through the winter. It's the beginning of a time of preparation. In Iowa, spring meant emerging bulbs, seeds coming up, but if we used that definition here, spring would start in October. they do, and it's called bahar. "Last" bahar.

The many seeds and bulbs that are slowly waking up with the coming of the rain and cool weather will grow slowly through the winter, sending down roots, gradually increasing, gathering strength. Then when the weather begins to warm and the bees come out, they will shoot up in a race with time; bloom, get pollinated, and with that last urgent bout of photosynthesis before the scorching summer heat comes, produce and ripen their seeds. Then they'll pull the last bit of nutrients and moisture from their fading leaves and stems, and wait out the summer safe underground.

A few of them have a different tactic. Colchicums, some crocus, and Amaryllis belladonna (affectionately known in California as "naked ladies), grow through the winter like the rest of the bulbs, but produce no flowers before the leaves die down in the spring. They wait till the end of summer to throw up their blooms. It's a clever strategy; when the seeds ripen and fall, they will either have conditions perfect for their growth, or in the case of some of the high-mountain plants, their seeds will be safely protected under a blanket of snow until spring, and watered by the constant trickle of runoff.

Obviously there are plenty of plants that, mission accomplished, are now going brown and making way for the next generation; the last fruits of the garden, persimmons and medlars, are coming into season. Indeed, some ornamentals draw more attention with their fruits than with their actual flowers. One of my favorites is Iris foetida, or "Gladwyn Stinking Iris." I always thought this name was a bit unfair, or at least exaggerated; it refers not to the flowers but to the leaves which, if crushed, smell a bit off, or to some noses, like roast beef. Compared to some of the other things I grow in the garden, Iris foetida is hardly spectacular. Its flowers emerge in late spring, and though they're hardly ugly, they're hardly worth devoting the space to a big clump of I. foetida. It's in the autumn, when color is at a premium, that the plant proves its value; the heavy green pods that have been developing all through the summer split open to reveal a bounty of brilliant orange seeds. These will hang on for at least a month or more, then either be eaten by birds or drop to the ground where many will sprout in early spring.

Of course there are plants that come into flower just now too. Besides the obvious chrysanthemums and asters (Note to myself, I need to get some asters growing here!) and the Jerusalem artichok at the top of this post, one of my favorite plants is now just starting its show: Salvia elegans, commonly known as pineapple sage. People growing this in colder climes might miss most of its show; even here I only get a month or so before the freezes make it start to look ratty, but it's definitely worth growing for the month of brilliant red blooms. I always seem to be taken by surprise; the plant looks like a big bushy mint plant for most of the summer and if it weren't for the delicious pineapple scent of the leaves, it wouldn't be much to write home about. Then suddenly one day I notice that the growing tips are pointing down, the signal that it is forming its flower buds. they elongate in a graceful droop, and finally, the red flowers shyly begin to peek from behind the green bracts. Then in a matter of days, the entire inflorescence turns straight upward and the intense red straw-like flowers open in quick succession. Each whorl is composed of several buds, and once the ends of the main stems are done, the branches join the party as well. Salvia elegans is a little tender; it goes down in a good freeze and really cold temperatures will kill the roots too, but it is easy to propagate. I usually take five or six cuttings about this time (get ones farther down with no flower buds). I just put them in water and they usually root within 10 days. They're easy to keep through the winter in a pot in a cool sunny place. Plant them in rich, moist soil (they don't like too much dryness in summer) and you'll be amazed at how fast the plants take off. If you can nurse it through the winter, you'll be rewarded even more richly; mine are as tall as my shoulder this year.