Permaculture Projects

Eastern Walkabout and Plants in the City of Istanbul

European Solidarity Corps Permaculture Project – Week 3 2021

Having postponed our annual polyculture study and courses for this season due to ongoing pandemic-related travel restrictions and the general anxiety around traveling, this summer I’ve decided to head east on a walkabout. After spending pretty much the last 14 months in Shipka, it’s great to get out and about again. I’m going to write a few posts during the journey, mainly about plants I come across in different places but also about some upcoming projects we’re working on that I’m aiming to complete on my travels.

My first stop is Istanbul and during this post, we’ll look at some of the wall plants of Istanbul, some great gardens I’ve visited here and at some street plantings (good and bad examples) from around the city that caught my attention.


Wall Plants of Istanbul

One of the striking features of Istanbul is the tall stone walls that are seemingly everywhere across the city, especially so in the ancient parts of the city and of course the famous city defence walls that are in some places 1000’s of years old. What makes the walls even more striking is the array of different plants that have found a home on these vertical surfaces amid the hustle and bustle of humans. Even for those uninitiated by the majesty of plants, it’s a great look.

Istanbul Wall Plants
Image by author

The plants seem to prefer the older walls where a lime mortar has been used and that are exposed to light and rain but there is a range of different species that colonise walls in hot dry spots and even shady north-facing walls. By far the most common species I came across was Parietaria judaica , a member of Urticaceae, the same family as stinging nettle. It seems to thrive on all the walls regardless of microclimatic factors.

Parietaria judaica
Parietaria judaica dominating a south-facing/sea-facing wall in semi-shade of mature street trees. Image provided by author.

We have a species of this plant, probably Parietaria officinalis, that voluntarily grow in our gardens in Shipka. It’s a herbaceous perennial and makes a great biomass plant seemingly unbothered by 2 or 3 cuts each season. It will spread around the garden within 3 years if left unchecked. I’ve had to dig a few plants up in the past and noticed that the pigs really enjoyed eating the roots and shoots of the plant.

Ficus carica cv. – Fig grows all over the city. The seeds are probably dispersed via bird droppings and they find their way into every nook and cranny. This is one plant mentioned here that will probably cause a considerable amount of damage to the walls as the woody roots systems widen within the cracks pushing the rocks apart and destabilising the structure.

Image provided by author

What I think is snapdragon Antirrhinum sp. on the left and Centranthus ruber on the right in full flower. The absence of insects on the flowers and all over the city is very noticeable compared to the flurry of activity pretty much always visible in our gardens and around Shipka but if you wait around long enough a few winged insects do visit. Many of these are insect-pollinated plants so presumably, the work of propagation is getting done.

Another feature of the walls are plants cascading down from the top of the wall. Ivy appears to be the wild volunteer plant but often Parthenocissus quinquefolia – Virginia Creeper and Wisteria sinensis – Chinese wisteria has been planted and it’s not unusual to see Vitis vinifera cv. – Grapevines in quieter streets.

Image provided by author

This section of the 200-year-old garden wall of Yildiz Park has been freshly mortared with what looks like cement but has quickly be colonised by Ficus carica cv. – Fig and Cymbalaria muralis- Ivy-leaved toadflax.

Along with the wall plants, all plants seem to be highly valued throughout the city and you’ll find a wide diversity of trees growing where they possibly can and some great gardens in the leafy residential areas. Planters are often introduced outside of buildings for small trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials, and climbers and do a great job to soften the old buildings and creating an unforgettable vibe of antiquity.

Plants on Buildings
Image provided by author.

If you would like to know more about the wall plants of Istanbul, I found a great study, based on the walls on the Anatolian side of Istanbul that reports 81 species of plants observed from 33 different families. You can find that study here.


Yildiz Park

Yıldız Park, in the Beşiktaş district of Istanbul, has been preserved as a forest for private hunting grounds for the Ottoman Sultans from the late 18th century. During the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II, the grounds became a park when he decided to move from Dolmabahçe to the Yıldız Palace. Many of the trees in the park, although most young specimens are typical of the native forestry in this area, the dominant tree species being Oak – Quercus spp., probably Q.robur, Q.petraea, and Q.frainetto.

I only explored the southern part of the garden and what was most striking was the beautiful stone pathways that meander around the woodland/park on the hills

Yildiz Park
Image provided by author.

The park, still being largely forested, is a great place to observe shade and semi shade-tolerant understory plants.  One thing that struck me as soon as I entered the park (from the eastern central gate) was a patch of Levisticum officinale – Lovage growing in the almost closed canopy of the oaks. You can see the yellow stems of the plants, already gone to seed, on the slopes in the below photo.

Image provided by author.

It was the first time I’ve met Teucrium fruticans – Bush Germander , a member of the mint family and native to the western and central Mediterranean. Growing to 1 m tall by 4 m wide, it is a spreading evergreen shrub with arching velvety white shoots, glossy aromatic leaves, and pale blue flowers that are attractive to bees in summer. It’s often used as hedging and had been planted alongside a pathway in the park. According to the internet, it’s virtually disease-free and deer resistant. It does require mild winters (USDA hardiness zones: 8-10)

Teucrium fruticans
Image provided by author.

Some other great things about the park are a series of cascading ponds and a treetop walk that crosses the hills and puts you up into the tree canopies. A wonderful perspective!

Image provided by author.


Street Plantings

Sunday is officially closed in Istanbul (pandemic lockdown thing) so I ended up wandering around and got a bit lost in the backstreets of Levent but I did stumble across some great plants, some really well placed, others not so. For example, this Delosperma cooperi (I think) was providing the perfect evergreen ground cover in a raised roadside beds outside an apartment block.

I found a great example of a polyculture hedge, mostly Laurus nobilis – Bay Tree, with some Oleander interspersed and Wisteria (a nitrogen-fixing climber)

It was a beautiful hedge, evergreen, aromatic, and lush but the location was not ideal. The plants were planted in the center of a 1.5m wide bed, probably 10 -12 years ago, and are encroaching on the pavement It may require biannual trimming to keep the access clear and the hedge will need topping at some point in the near future. Considering the hedge was 100 m long, that’s a hefty amount of yearly maintenance. Great for the city arborists, not so great for the city budget and, twice a year trimming will likely be a bit too stressful for the plants, but I’m not sure.

Plenty of Gleditsia triacanthos – Honey Locust and Morus alba – White Mulberry planted and, self-seeded around the city

Gleditsia triacanthos – Honey Locust and Morus alba – White Mulberry. Image provided by author.
Broadleaved Ivy
This broadleaved Ivy (not sure of the species) makes excellent ground cover. Image provided by author.

As a side note, I wrote most of this blog at a great little Çay Shop called Caynik, in Mecidiye and have just found out the owner of the shop grows four cultivars of Camellia sinensis, some of which makes it’s way into their tea mixes, specifically a White tea that features young or minimally processed leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant.

Tons of support species on the menu at Caynik in Mecidiye. Image provided by author.

It’s a lovely little shop, great tea, totally recommend it, if you’re in the area. Location here.

That’s all for now. For news on what’s going on in Shipka, Sophie has just started an ECS project with a group of volunteers that you can read more about here and here. Dylan is taking on the main garden and nursery maintenance duties this season and Archie will be handling the seed orders and helping Dylan with the nursery. I’ll be joining them again at the very latest by the Autumn, in time to prepare this season’s nursery orders.


Paul Alfrey

Hi I'm Paul, Originally from the UK I moved over to Bulgaria with my family 12 years ago and set up the Balkan Ecology Project. Prior to that, I worked as a freelance Arborist in the UK for 15 years. Balkan Ecology Project is a family project run by myself, Sophie and our two boys Dylan and Archie, and supported by the amazing volunteers we have hosted here over the years. We aim to develop and promote practices that provide nutritious affordable food while enhancing biodiversity and work to achieve this by: - Researching, designing and implementing systems on the ground - Providing working examples of our designs at our sites open for the public to visit - Providing quality education and training to aspiring growers and landscapers - Providing consultancy and design for landowners and farmers across Europe - Practicing an open source policy, whereby we disseminate our results freely and share all aspects of our work - Growing, selling and promoting the use of plants and plant communities that have high ecological and nutritional value Our activities currently include: Biological Plant Nursery, Educational Courses, Local Land Stewardship, Polyculture Research, Market Gardening​, and Consultancy and Design.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

Back to top button