On the trail of oaks from Istanbul to Dalaman

During our descent towards Atatürk Airport, Istanbul’s International air terminal, the numerous minarets on both sides of the Bosphorus give us a whiff of the Orient, something that I had eagerly wanted to experience. But it wouldn’t be on that sunny Saturday in late October that we would set foot on Oriental terrain, since our cozy 19th century hotel, the Daphnis, is located near The Golden Horn, a sea arm on the European side of the Bosphorus. When we reach the hotel, right in front we immediately see two young Aesculus hippocastanum, with magnificent bold green leaves, perfectly healthy and without any sign of leaf miners or leaf scorch, something that is almost impossible to find in any other part of Europe since the invasion of Cameraria.

At dinner time we all gather and finally get to meet all the people who have come to learn more about Turkish oaks. There are quit a few familiar faces from The International Oaks Society (IOS) and some new faces, including a few Turks from TEMA, the organization that is organizing this oak trip. TEMA is a Turkish foundation that is concerned with the age-old double scourge of deforestation and soil erosion. TEMA’s main aim is to reforest and maintain and restore natural sites.

Guy Sternberg and Henry Eilers, two Americans from Illinois, are still held up at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris and will arrive only in the middle of the night, waking some of us up by banging their heavy suitcases against the wall on the narrow staircase.

Early sunrise and the morning call to prayers from the mosque make it clear to us that the Turks are early birds and that we’re not here to waste our time sleeping. Our guide, Professor Adil Güner, informs us that we have a full schedule and that we had better show some discipline if we don’t want to miss our appointments. But we’re lucky, the small bus has two exits, which will save us a lot of time when we get in and out.

Sunday morning, then, around 9 o’clock, we cross the Bosphorus, with luxurious houses all along its shores. After a short drive we arrive at the recently created Nezahat Gokyigit Memorial Park and I am finally able to solemnly set foot on the Asian continent. On an otherwise wasted space between highway intersections, Nihat Gökyigit secured permission from the Turkish government to create this park in memory of his beloved wife, Nezahat. In the arboretum we see many common plants but also a few interesting oaks like Quercus hartwissiana, a Turkish species related to Q. robur and Q. petraea, with shallow lobes and dark red brown shoots. This tree has a densely branched crown and a broad columnar habit. During the tour I am able to collect scions of two different types of this oak, which will allow me, I hope, to observe this species a little more closely.

A short ferry crossing brings us to Yalova , a spot that enjoys a very mild and favorable microclimate. This was an ideal spot for Hairettin Karaca to create an arboretum, start a nursery, and build a home. Our friendly white-haired host waits for us with open arms under a magnificent Acer saccharum and a quick look at the garden makes us eager to begin inspecting this beautiful spot. Mr. Karaca who, together with Nihat Gökyigit founded TEMA, is an influential businessman who has used his power and wealth for a good cause—the appreciation and preservation of Turkish flora.

Before starting a guided tour around the garden and nursery we all learn something more about Turkish hospitality. All around the patio there are tables full of Turkish specialties. After a delicious piece of baklava we shift from gastronomy to dendrology. Habibe Güler, the charming curator of the arboretum and nursery, shows us around this verdant paradise. Just next to the house is a four-meter-high pawpaw (Asimina triloba) showing early autumn color and a little farther on we can admire a much taller Cornus walteri. We can find only a few lonely nuts under a large Fagus orientalis, but both Acer oliveranum and Acer obtusiloba are full of dangling samaras and Habibe signals that we can fill our bags. Next to a sturdy Q. rysophylla we discover a Q. ‘Zehra’ which is very probably a hybrid of the former with Q. falcata. Another interesting hybrid that we are shown is Acer ‘Karaca’ (A. pseudoplatanus x A. buergerianum) of which I will receive a few scions next winter. The tree that people call Q. robur here always has huge acorns (5cm) and looks more like Q. haas to us, but strangely, this species is not described for Turkey. This problem will dog our footsteps throughout the trip because the caps are also different from what we would expect from a Q. robur. A small grove of Diospyros kaki are laden with beautiful orange fruits, but unfortunately it is a little too early in the season to eat them. Under a young Q. libani we find lots of big acorns firmly held in their dried caps. In the nursery, big trees give some shade to young potted trees. After this exciting tour we are offered some young seedlings and wild collected seed of many Turkish oaks, including the unmistakable showy caps of Q. ithaburensis subsp. macrolepis.

In the evening, at the hotel, Nihat shows us a DVD on one of TEMA’s projects in northeastern Turkey, close to the Georgian border. In this remote region TEMA has a project with a very prolific new race of bees that is bred there by local people and spread all over the country.

The next morning, Monday, we’re up early again and soon driving in an easterly direction towards Duzçe. On the way we can see how the Mediterranean vegetation gradually changes to more hardy sorts like Fraxinus angustifolia, Salix alba and Alnus glutinosa. This whole northern region of Turkey close to the Black Sea gets a fair share of rain and the farther you go toward the East, the more rain there is. Nihat, who sits in front of the bus, from time to time gives us some interesting information about the history and the customs of his native land, and he plays surprisingly lovely Turkish guitar music that sets you to dreaming as the beautiful scenery glides past the window.

Our first stop is at a stand of Quercus cerris and Q. frainetto which, according to a few specialists in the group, never cross, so we can be fairly sure to have true progeny from the seed; unfortunately, we can find hardly any acorns without weevil holes. Under the trees are masses of Heleborus and crocus patiently waiting for winter and then spring to show their magnificent flowers. After an hour or so we’re on the road again for Akçakoca on the Black Sea, where we hope to find the evergreen Q. ilex. On the way we see vast plantations of filberts (Corylus), apparently regularly pruned. A little higher up we recognize Castanea sativa, Carpinus betulus and Fagus orientalis with Rhododendron ponticum in the understory. As we approach the Black Sea these gradually make way for Sorbus torminalis, Platanus orientalis, Arbutus unedo, Laurus nobilis and Quercus ilex, of which some have peculiarly formed caps. An old man burning some dry potato vines willingly guides us through thick underbush of laurel, arbutus and holm oak, but a five-meter-high cliff makes it impossible to go any farther. We so much wanted to soak our feet in the sea, but the cliff blocked the way.

On the way to Bolu we take a lunch break at a roadhouse and we try to find a huge Q. hartwissiana that is supposed to be around here somewhere. But we do not find it, and we have to settle for a few smaller ones because the big one seems to have vanished. But all is not lost: Dominique Duhaut is happy to find Daphne colchica. Beneath a stunning Q. robur (haas-type) with wide spreading branches, people take pictures and measure the massive trunk. Some people just stand there and admire the tree while others embrace the trunk to get an idea of its girth; as for me, I can’t keep myself from climbing this monumental tree and in so doing I reconfirm Darwin’s insights about the descent of Man. In a coppiced stand of Quercus pubescens, Q. petraea and Q. virgiliana, used as picnic area by the local people, we make our last stop for the day and we meet the ever cheerful Aydin Borazan, a student in botany at the university of Bolu whose mentor is our guide Adil. He points out that Q. virgiliana has a longer leaf stalk than Q. pubescens and usually has slightly larger, flatter leaves with more lobes. On our arrival at the campus of Bolu University just before sunset I quickly gather some acorns of Q. petraea subsp. iberica from a tree with remarkably narrow leaves. After supper Aydin shows us his oak herbarium and informs us that there are 9000 plant species in Turkey, of which 2600 are endemic.

On Tuesday morning everyone is ready for an early start, since we have to travel a long way again today. We leave the motorway near Gerede and drive on smaller roads in the direction of Cankiri. The scenery gets more and more wild and desolate; to everyone’s surprise we encounter a snow shower when crossing a mountain ridge. For some time we follow a small river with pollarded willows and narrow Populus usbekistanica ‘ Afghanica,’ with their nearly white stems and yellow fall color, all along its banks. Under a vivid red Cornus mas an old man is minding a small herd of skinny goats. At an altitude of 1300 meters we make a quick stop for Pyrus eleagnifolia and Crataegus orientalis scattered over the plateau. Here we get an idea of the harsh climate of central Anatolia during the winter: the strong cold wind, even in autumn, cuts like a knife right through our clothes! A closer look at one of the hawthorns reveals that this is Crataegus tanacetifolia: there is a small leaf on the side of the fruit. Later that morning we drive through a more hilly area where we take a break at a stand of Q. pubescens and Eike Jablonski points out Cotoneaster tomentosus and Paliurus spina-cristi growing among the stunted downy oaks.

Around midday we arrive at Yaprakli, a remote village that is the proud home of the largest oak tree in Turkey, with a girth of no less than 14 meters. This is truly what you could call an “encounter with a tree,” which leaves you speechless and full of admiration. In the journal of the Karaca arboretum I found the following lines written by Hairettin Karaca: “This is one of the oldest and most splendid trees I had ever seen. I guess that it must be at least six or seven hundred years old. How much has happened in the world in all that time! If only this tree had a tongue to speak, what things it would be able to tell me! Tell me great tree, what have you seen, what have you heard? What have you lived through and how has your life passed? Have you tasted life to the full? Has your life been all you desired? You cannot speak, yet there are so many things to say. You look as if you are not tired of life yet. You still branch out, reaching your arm to the sky and sending your roots down into the soil. You are waiting for the coming spring. May you see many more springs, you lovely oak!” The inside of the trunk is completely hollow and there must be room in there for at least fifteen people. This proves once again that the vitally important parts of a tree lie in the cambium, just under the bark, and that the wood is only there for stability.

After lunch we are offered chai (tea) at the local forestry office of Cankiri. Right in front of the building I notice another of those trees we call Q. haas and Guy advises me to take a few scions, since this one has very nice narrow leaves and huge acorns. A short ride will bring us to one of the TEMA projects. On the north-facing side of a hill we take a closer look at a plantation of young oaks where the acorns were sown directly on the site a few years ago. Of the three acorns planted in each hill at least one is growing, and it is clear that this is a slow but nevertheless successful project. From the hill we admire the setting sun throwing a lovely low light over the poplars and walnuts in their beautiful yellow autumn dress. It’s strange to see walnuts with such nice fall color and with perfectly healthy leaves: at home in Belgium all the walnuts looked terrible this year. It is late and dark when we finally arrive in Ankara but it is clear that there will be a general election here in a few days, since there are banners everywhere and huge posters of politicians are hung up on the walls of apartment buildings. In front of our modern hotel stands a row of poorly pruned Sophora trees with masses of fruit pods.

While leaving the capital next morning, I quickly take note of all the trees that I can recognize through the window of the bus; many are also common in western Europe but the following are more typical of this continental region on the doorstep of Asia: Salix babylonica, Platanus orientalis, Cercis siliquastrum, Koelreuteria paniculata, Fraxinus angustifolia and Eleagnus angustifolia. We drive through a vast steppe in the direction of Afyon and notice numerous marble quarries and workshops along the road. Farther on, where the soil is apparently a little more fertile, we see extensive stubble-fields and farmers harvesting sugar beets with modern machinery, while in smaller fields we observe whole families toiling away doing the same work by hand. On the main road we sometimes pass trucks loaded with all the family belongings, cow, goats, and henhouse included.

The landscape slowly becomes more hilly and greener as the influence of the Mediterranean Sea gradually increases. Around noon we stop at a very interesting place with Quercus cerris, Q. pubescens and Q. infectoria: a small, semi-evergreen oak with light green leathery leaves, having short stalks and crenate-serrate or entire margins. There is some grumbling when we are called back to the bus for another long ride because this is a very interesting place where we could have scouted around for much longer. Still I manage to take a handful of scions of a Q. cerris with very deeply cut leaves and an interesting Q. infectoria noticed by Allen Coombes, presumably hybridized with one of the two other species present here.

In the afternoon we visit a stand of prickly Q. coccifera heavily browsed by goats but laden nevertheless with acorns. With our hands full of scratches but our pockets full of acorns we reluctantly climb back on the bus for the last ride of this tiring day with too few stops and too much sitting. By sunset we arrive at our hotel on the banks of Lake Egirdir and we are all glad to hear that we will be staying here for two nights, with only a short ride on the next day. In the evening I always take time to repack the scions and the seeds that I have quickly put in my bag during the day. This is also a good time to add comments to the notes that I have made at the various stops. I don’t think that it would be possible to write a report without such notes.

At six o’clock the next morning, Thursday, Guy wakes me up because we had arranged to take a morning walk with a few other early risers. We are rewarded by a magnificent red dawn and an early sun throwing its light on the red-brown hills on the other side of the lake. On our way we notice a Platanus orientalis with very deeply cut leaves and from a garden a Celtis tournefortii hangs gracefully over an old brick wall; from it we are able to take a few seeds. In the market place there is the usual hustle and bustle of people shopping and haggling for the best price, and we are surprised to see an old lady selling sweet tasting medlars and fruits of Cornus mas which are made into a delicious jam called “kizilcik” here in Turkey.

After a short ride in the direction of Antalya, with mainly apple orchards along the road, we arrive in Yukarigökdere (just try to pronounce that!) where a giant Platanus orientalis shades the entire village square. From there we take the steep, winding gravel-road to Kasnak Forest. During our ascent we quickly realize that we have stumbled into an enchanted Turkish Eden. At an altitude of 1600 m, next to the National champion of Q. vulcanica we stop and Adil tells us that we have no less than six hours to wander freely and enjoy this “paradise for dendrologists”.

First of all I try to gather some acorns of Q. vulcanica, an endemic species with deeply incised leaves, reminiscent of Q. frainetto but easily distinguished from the latter by the longer leaf stalk. We are a little late for acorns but by searching among the fallen leaves we can still find quit a few. There’s a lot of variation in the way the leaves are cut so I decide to take a few scions of the most distinctive ones. Apparently the species sprouts back easily even after the felling of old trees; consequently it is not unusual to find stumps with up to 50 young stems around an old trunk cut down many years ago. To get the big acorns of Q. trojana we have to shake the tree, for, judging by the traces they have left, wild boars have clearly been here before us, for there are no acorns on the ground. This semi-evergreen species has smaller leaves and a shorter leafstalk than Q. libani, which has a more eastern distribution. It’s not uncommon here to see the nicely-coloring Sorbus torminalis subsp. pinnatifida, with deeply cut leaves as the name suggests. According to Bean, Sorbus umbellata is one of the most ornamental of the Aria (White Beam) group, and though the fruits ripen very late in the season, we can’t find any. Accordingly, I decide to take a few scions. Acer hyrcanum, a tree occasionally encountered in this region, has some affinities with A. opalus but with the former the leaves are more deeply lobed. Around lunch we gather for a wonderful picnic with masses of olives, dolma baki, goat cheese, bread, and wine. As desert we have yogurt with Kizilcik-- remember the delicious jam made from the fruits of Cornus mas?

In the afternoon Eike, Diana and I, climb a little higher to take a closer look at an old Cedrus libani and Eike takes the opportunity to pick a few sticky cones. On top of the mountain we have to jump from boulder to boulder, watching carefully where we put our feet. The view is breathtaking and for some time we just sit there silently enjoying the unforgettable scenery. We decide to descend gradually, hoping to see some more interesting plants and indeed, a little lower we notice that Quercus cerris var. cerris and Q. infectoria begin to appear. Moreover, Diana Gardener, our lovely dendrophile from Oregon, perceives a hole in the ground leading to a small cave about 6 meters deep; a long ladder enables a few courageous souls to go down and make some pictures. As we continue our descent, more and more
Q. coccifera appear, some of which are about 5 meters high with a compact dark green crown on a short but sturdy trunk. From time to time we also see Fraxinus ornus, Juniperus excelsa and Styrax officinalis in this forest which is nevertheless mainly populated by the genus Quercus. Just before sunset we are back in the village where we take a few pictures of the majestic oriental plane.

The next morning is Friday, the last day of our tour; we drive all the way down to Köcegiz near Dalaman with just a brief stop for Pyrus syriaca; along the road on damp sites we begin to notice Liquidambar orientalis. In a natural stand of this moisture-loving tree, with some individuals up to 18 meters high, we have a picnic and some time to study the species more carefully. We can clearly see the old incisions made in the trunks to tap the amber. The trees are still in leaf with no sign of any autumn color, but the typical scent of liquidambar is clearly perceptible. Judging from the numerous small brooks I suppose that it can be very wet here in winter, because even now there is some water flowing.

In the afternoon we drive up a narrow winding mountain road to see a natural stand of Quercus aucheri, a species that can be distinguished from Q. coccifera by the velvety underside of the leaf and the larger, sweet-tasting acorns. Along the road we see hundreds of beehives and our guide informs us that a very special honey is produced here because the bees forage on wild flowers and the resin of the pines. It takes a lot of courage and skill from our driver to bring us back to a paved road on the other side of the mountain and we all spontaneously applaud when we finally reach it.

During supper, which unfortunately is our farewell meal, we thank and praise all the people who collaborated to make this trip what it was: surprising, instructive and enjoyable, with pleasant company and with the greatest treat of all, The Garden of Eden of Kasnak Forest.

The next day we have a one-hour flight from Dalaman to Istanbul, where in the afternoon some of us take a guided tour of the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sophya, sights one must see when visiting this ancient city on the Bosphorus.

A few weeks later Nihat sends us all a CD with lovely Turkish guitar music; it immediately brings to mind the endless plateau of Central Anatolia. It is a most fitting souvenir of an unforgettable visit to Turkey, the fascinating bridge between Europe and Asia.

In closing I wish to thank my friend and fellow member of IOS, Allan Taylor of Boulder, Colorado, USA for helping me with the preparation of the English version of this diary. Allan and I will be traveling together through Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas in the autumn of 2004. Stay tuned for a report on that trip too.

Some more pictures from this trip from Guy Sternberg Album: