Spring in Istanbul’s forests

Forests, endemic plants and wild life represent another side of Istanbul. And with spring, this aspect of the city becomes vibrant and colorful and the familiar picture changes.

We are gazing down on Istanbul from one of the Forestry Department’s helicopters. With us is Yüksel Yüksel, Director of Forest Protection. Below us lies a sprawling city so huge it appears endless, so busy it appears never to sleep. A city surrounded by forests on the north and water on the south.  An historic metropolis that breathes through the tiny parks and groves it harbors within it. In a little while we will land deep in nature, in this enormous city’s rarely seen green area with its endemic vegetation and flowers.

MEDITERRANEAN AND BLACK SEA INFLUENCE
The Marmara region is characterized by a transitional climate, midway between that of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. This is also reflected in its plant geography since flora of both regions flourish here. Istanbul is one of the provinces that best illustrates this aspect of the Marmara. Thanks to the damp climate, plants of the Europe-Sibiria region are concentrated here,  especially in the northern areas near the Black Sea coast. An increase in Mediterranean flora is observed in the warmer areas to the south along the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara and on the Prince’s Islands. The Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum) and pistachio pine (Pinus pinea) add color to the Bosphorus as typical Mediterranean trees that have adapted well here.

ISTANBUL’S FLOWERS
Different soil, climatic and geomorphological structures make it possible for elements of flora of both kinds to  thrive here. With around 2500 different natural plant species, Istanbul alone puts European countries such as Holland, England and Switzerland in the shade in this respect. Even more importantly, this means that you can find in Istanbul approximately one-fourth of the more than ten thousand plants that grow naturally in Turkey; some of these plants are endemic, in other words, they live only in Istanbul in the whole world. The habitats of others have shrunk drastically, indeed they are under threat of extinction. The Istanbul crocus (Crocusa olivieri subsp, istanbulensis), the Colchicum micranthum, which has no common name in English since it is endemic to Turkey, the snowdrop (Galanthus plicatus subsp. byzantimus), the purple dreadnettle (Lamium purpureum subsp. aznavourii), the Taraxacum aznavourii, a kind of aster, the Isatis arenaria and Bupleurum pendikum, two more endemic plants without common names in English, Centaura  hermannii and Centaura kilaea, both cornflowers, Linum tauricum subsp. bosphori, Istanbul thyme (Thymus aznavourii), a species of verbascum (Verbascum degenii), Symphytum pseudobulbosum, a species of borage, Silene sangaria and Asperula littoralis, two more species without common names in English, and Cirsium polycephalum, a species of thistle, are endemic plants that are under threat globally. The Kayışdağı onion (Allium peroninianum), Ümraniye crocus (Crocus pestalozzae) and another crocus (Crocus flavus subsp. dissectus), Yarımburgaz mustard (Erysimum degenianum), Erysimum aznavourii and  E. sorgerae, both species of cress, Istanbul hypericum (Hypericum avicularifolium subsp. byzantinum), Dyer’s madder (Euphorbia amygdaloides, Persian Everlasting Pea (Lathyrus undulatus), and Thracian black chicory (Taraxacum pseudobrachyglossum) meanwhile are species endemic to Istanbul that are under threat of extinction throughout Europe.

ISTANBUL’S TRUE PLANTS: THE FOREST
But in terms of Istanbul’s plant geography its true plant type is the forest. It is possible to see examples of pristine forest on both shores of the Bosphorus today. The Alemdağ forests on the Anatolian side and the Belgrade forest on the European are damp, mixed-leaf forests. Their dominant tree species is the oak, three species of which - English oak, sessile or durmast oak, and Hungarian oak - are spread over a broad area. Oriental beech is observed in areas near the Black Sea coast. Other species entering into the mix in these damp forests include hornbeam, Anatolian chestnut, quaking aspen, alder, common hazel, hedge maple, beech-maple, smooth elm, field elm, broad leaf linden, goat willow and grey willow.

ISTANBUL’S SCRUBLAND
Apart from forest formation, scrub and heath also cover a large swath of Istanbul. Scrub on the Black Sea coast is few in species but thick, with helichrysum, arbutus, laurel,  and phllyrea exhibiting density in the area. Together with scrub, deciduous species such as yellow dogwood, common hazel, buckthorn, medlar, sloe, blackberry, privet and bearberry are also found. A type of scrub known as pseudomaquis or ‘false scrub’ is observed along the entire European section of the Black Sea coastal strip. Scrub forms tall, dense thickets on the Bosphorus hills and ridges with their thin soil covering and in the as yet unspoiled parts of the Prince’s Islands. Helichrysum, viburnum and darnel are found frequently especially on the largest of the islands, Büyükada. But the importance of Istanbul’s forests is not limited to their flora; they are interesting for their wild life as well. Despite all of today’s threats, deer, roe deer, wild cats, foxes, jackals, wild boar, otters, badgers and a very small number of wolves continue to inhabit the city’s forests.

NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FORESTS
At 5,442 hectares today, the Belgrade Forest is one of Istanbul’s most important forested areas. The fact that, according to one view, it has supplied the city’s water needs since 375-395 A.D. lends it a special significance. Far from supplying any water needs today, however, it is  used more as a recreational area. Similar in structure, the Çatalca, Kanlıca and Alemdağ forests continue to produce firewood and lumber.

But the Istanbul forests are not limited only to these natural forests. Since the 1960’s especially, various units of the forestry service have been experimenting with different types of reforestation with fast-growing exotic (foreign) species in the city’s vast vacant areas. Reforestation with the maritime pine (Pinus pinaster), known throughout the world as a fast-growing industrial tree, has however unfortunately failed to produce the desired results. General Director of Forests Osman Kahveci, whose views we sought on the subject of such artificial forests, had this to say: “Istanbul is 44% forest. These areas are quite rich in tree species, herbal plants and wild life. A significant portion of them are areas reclaimed through the reforestation efforts of the forestry service. A major part of these forests, which were produced through reforestation, consists of exotic species of pine. Our efforts are continuing to convert these needle forests, which are vulnerable to fire, into deciduous and mixed forests with a natural plant cover.”

There is no doubt that the natural areas are the ones most under threat in a city undergoing rapid growth and development. Supporting individual and public efforts to reduce the threats against our forests (fire, clearing, air pollution, overuse), which are our most important natural resource, is a fitting expression of respect for the city in which we live.