The Color Of Istanbul The Judas Tree

For centuries Istanbul has been bathed in purple every spring when the Judas trees bloom, crowning glory of artists and empires. And touring the city is even more enjoyable when it is sporting its quintessential color.

The Judas tree or ‘Eastern Redbud’ (‘erguvan’ in Turkish) belongs to Istanbul as to no other city in the world. It is at once Byzantine, Ottoman and Turkish, the color of emperors and empires. You will see its purple color in the centuries-old frescoes that adorn the walls of the Hagia Sophia. You will see it again on the historic Istanbul city walls. There is no shortage of historical evidence that the name Istanbul, a capital of culture for more than two millennia, is synonymous with the Judas tree. The city is rumored, for example, to have been founded when the Judas trees were in bloom. Similarly royal purple was the traditional symbol of the Byzantine emperors.  Produced from the shells of a certain species of mussels, the color purple adorned the capes of the Byzantine emperors as a symbol of power and riches. The prominent men of Byzantium are even said to have injected the tree’s purple color into their veins to emphasize their nobility. The seafarers who arrived in Istanbul long before the Byzantines boiled the petals of the Judas tree blossoms and drank the infusion to ward off disease. The Judas tree had a special place in Ottoman culture as well. Judas tree festivals, which had their inception in the 15th century Ottoman empire, were known variously as `erguvan’ days or gatherings. What’s more, the Judas tree’s sturdy boughs were also used by the Ottomans to fashion walking canes.  Boasting a unique color somewhere between purple, lavender and pink, the blossoms of the Judas tree are also known to have added color and flavor to salads in the traditional Istanbul cuisine of the past.

Admiration for the beauty of the Judas tree is evident in Turkish literature as well. Edip Cansever in his poems likens the city to a magnificent ‘empire of erguvan’. According to Orhan Veli, it is a world that can drive a person mad while Necip Fazıl calls it the country’s ‘true color’. Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar characterizes this elegant tree as “a rare flower worthy of a special day in its name”.

The Bosphorus is clothed in a magnificent cloak of purple when the Judas trees bloom in spring. This tree, one of the native species of Istanbul flora, is like a bouquet of flowers in every hue from purple and lavender to shocking pink. With petals like clusters of grapes, the Judas tree in autumn produces bean-like seeds. Without its leaves, it is a scrawny tree resembling a bit of scrub. If the seeds fall to the ground in autumn before drying out, they will come to life in spring. The price of a Judas tree sapling at one of Istanbul’s many nurseries ranges from 20 to 120 Turkish Liras, depending on how tall it is. Although Judas trees grow slowly at first, they shoot up later reaching as much as six meters in height. Their favorite habitats are the low hills and gentle slopes exposed to the sea and the sun. There are many species of Judas tree, but the most popular is the purplish-pink one which has become emblematic of Istanbul. The part of the city where Judas trees are most abandant is along the Anatolian shore of the Bosphorus between Kandilli and Paşabahçe. By the latest count, the two banks of the Bosphorus boast close to two thousand Judas trees.  Nature lovers who appreciate the matchless beauty of this rare tree, an Istanbul icon for centuries, are organizing a variety of events these days: tree planting days in spring, Bosphorus cruises or walking tours to view the trees, photographic outings to take pictures of the blossoms. Filling their pockets with seeds, they scatter them wherever they go. So much do they love the Judas tree that they have even set up an e-mail group to exchange information about it all year long.  Their common purpose is to increase the number of Judas trees in the city and organize Istanbul Judas blossom festivals like Japan’s cherry blossom festival.

Tulips, mimosas, daisies, orchids… All of Istanbul’s flowers are beautiful. But right now it’s the turn of the Judas trees to transform the city into a cloud of color. Judging by what the Friends of the Judas Tree have to say, there are six areas in Istanbul where these trees can best be viewed in all their unrivaled splendor: Üsküdar’s Fethi Paşa Grove, the Çubuklu hills above Beykoz, the hills above Vaniköy and Kandilli, the Aşiyan slope, Pierre Loti on the Golden Horn, and Mihrabat Grove. As you follow the Judas trees around Istanbul, you are going to need some interesting facts to share with your friends. You should know, for example, that one of Istanbul’s oldest Judas trees is in the Validebağ Grove at Bağlarbaşı. To see the tallest Judas trees, you will have to branch out to Nişantaşı’s neighboring district of Maçka. Meanwhile the coast at Üsküdar boasts some rare white Judas trees, while the century-old Judas trees on the hills of Kandilli are a boon for photographers. The Judas tree is as capricious as it is beautiful. Some species take up to four or five years to bloom, and if they meet with wind and hard rains their blossoms may last only a couple weeks.

In short, the Judas tree is the harbinger of spring, the symbol of life and rebirth. A special tree that aids the growth of the flowers around it by enriching the soil and imbuing its environs with beauty in the form of clusters of blossoms that burst from its desiccated, shrub-like branches. Don’t forget, time is short for savoring the pleasure of spring and the Judas tree. So make haste. Now is the time to rediscover Istanbul and relish this rainbow of color.