The flora of Datça

Swept by the scent of plants and grasses, with flowers bursting from under every stone, the Datça Peninsula is Anatolia’s book of medicinal herbs.

Bloodred poppies. Sage, whose Latin name means ‘health’. French lavender, whose flowers resemble tiny pine cones. Capers, yellow broom, Limonium sinuatum that stains the beaches purple, mountain-scented thyme.

Reşadiye, aka the Datça Peninsula, is Anatolia’s book of medicinal herbs. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that flowers burst forth here from every mountain and valley, from under every stone and even out of the sand, in short from everywhere. In spring especially, the rich Mediterranean plant cover seems to break out in a rainbow of color.

So bounteous has nature been to Datça that even the waves on the sea seem to cheer the blossoming almond trees. Here at Datça the winds intermingle to bless air, earth and vegetation, bestowing longevity on man and helping the soil give birth to myriad plant forms. The flora of the Datça Peninsula is a virtual ‘marine pharmacy’ of medicaments from the Aegean and Mediterranean climates, where rosemary, wormwood, harmal, wild mint, centaury, sumac and countless other flowering plants announce their presence.

In his book, ‘Cnidus the Beautiful: Slumbering in Blue’, Oktay Sönmez has this to say about the flora of the Datça Peninsula, thyme in particular, which he describes with childlike enthusiasm: “The peasant women say that thyme here is like the scent of one’s mother. Thyme, a millennia-old source of joy going back to antiquity. The scent of thyme and oil of thyme are an Anatolian elixir, synonymous with the scorching Aegean sun of the Cnidus terraces, Doria, and the mountains that form today’s Reşadiye Peninsula. The scent of thyme is the breath of the mountains...” Fragrant with the scent of the plants and herbs that grow on it, the Datça Peninsula, together with nearby Bozburun Peninsula, was identified by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 1999 as one of 100 spots on the earth in urgent need of protection. With its unique landscape, unspoiled coasts and sand dunes, rich marine life, and indigenous plants and wildlife, the Datça Peninsula exhibits a variety of microclimates. Towering Calabrian pines dominate its forests. But the Mediterranean cypress, Phoenician juniper,  gall oak, sandalwood, strawberry tree, Judas tree, oleander, carob and of course the ubiquitous olive are Datça’s true hosts. And maquis and heath, typical plants of the Mediterranean climate, are in evidence everywhere.

Over the years Datça has been known for its three blessings: almonds, honey and fish. Today too the trees that produce the tastiest almonds in Turkey create a festive atmosphere at Datça in spring when they don their white blossoms like thousands of brides. The almonds come in countless varieties from the superior quality Nurlu, to the Kababağ, Sıra, Diş and Dedebağ. The unripe almond, its shell still soft and green, is known as the ‘çağla’. The Datça almond leaves an unforgettable taste in your mouth.

Fruit of a tree formerly thought to grow only on the island of Crete, the Datça date was discovered on the peninsula in 1983, the first time it was found in Turkey. The truth is however that the Datça locals have been gathering and eating dates at the beginning of October since time immemorial. Which only goes to show how many facets of Datça’s plant cover are still waiting to be discovered. This tree, which flowers in May, is fed by underground waters. Such a survivor is it that even when damaged by fire it sprouts new shoots from its charred, leafless trunk. With its bluish leaves it is reminiscent of the Mediterranean itself. Since it grows in a riparian thicket between Kurucabük and Balıkaşıran, the only way to see it is to go by sea.

Datça also boasts a sand dune worthy of a book: Gebekum. Even if you happened to discover a gold mine on some coast or other, it could never compare with this treasure trove. For this 6 km-long  dune with its ecosystem exhibiting a hundred different plant species, five of them indigenous, is nature’s gift to mankind. Stretching along the south coast between Kocadağ and Mt. Emecik, the Gebekum sand dune varies in width between 170 and 400 meters. Having suffered the depredations of sand removal for building construction over many years, its natural habitat has now been taken under protection. Moles that wake up in spring and crawl out of their holes, bright green chameleons and colorful insects complement the plant cover of this fossil dune. Nineteen species of birds either visit the dune or build their nests there. And when you trace a circle just a hand’s width in the sand and look at the plants contained within it, you’ll be amazed to count dozens of species. Even the dolphins cavorting off the coast often leap out of the water to greet the Gebekum dune, formation of which commenced some six million years ago.

Some of the 154 species of wild orchid that grow in Turkey are also found on the Datça Peninsula. With their vibrant colors and elegant shape, orchids are the queens of the flower world. The Serapias orientalis and Serapias bergonii, both of which grow in Datça’s soil, are rapidly diminishing in number due to makers of ice cream and ‘sahlep’, a popular winter hot drink made from the dried tubers of orchids. Certain species of orchid live here in some tiny spot, a mountain slope  for example, and nowhere else in the world. The orchids of Datça are therefore increasing in value by the day and deserve to be protected.

The flora of Datça have a place in the local cuisine as well. Olives, nettles, daisies, honeyberries, tomatoes sprinkled with fresh thyme, sempervivum, wild asparagus, cheese ‘kopanisti’, caper sprout salad, and wild greens such as ‘Deniz börülcesi’ (Salicornia Europaea) are the staples of the Datça dining table. But the best-known traditional dishes are courgette flower dolmas and ‘keşkek’ (a dish made of meat and wheat pounded together). If you’re a tea drinker, then fill the pot and get the herbs ready: wild mint, sage, ‘garağan’, marjoram, nettles, ‘elmascık’! Even savory rolled pastries are stuffed with herbs in Datça, and soup is never served without ‘narpız’, the local wild mint.

Let’s see what Oktay Sönmez has to say about that wild mint: “Its fragrance is a tiny taste of happiness in the mouth. Tiny grains, smaller than lentils, clinging to long, dried yellow stalks. That’s all. But it’s as if a whole world is contained in its fragrance.”
Yes, a world still lies hidden in the now polluted landscape of Datça, and we need to protect it with our lives...