Eastern Walkabout – Plants in the City – Still in Istanbul

I’ve not managed to leave Istanbul yet, still really enjoying the city and the seemingly never-ending spectacles there are to discover here.  Although with temperatures creeping up to mid 30’s Celsius, a wild beach or mountain forest is seeming more and more appealing.

During this post, I’ll share some plant observations from around Sultanahmet and Topkapi Palace Museum introduce a demonstration farm/garden I discovered was growing on a shopping mall opposite where I’m staying, and take a look at some other plants from around the city.


Street Planting in Sultanahmet and Topkapi

Some of the best street plantings I’ve seen are in the Sultanahmet area. This part of Istanbul was first settled by Greek colonists in 667 BC (referred to then as Byzantium) and has been inhabited by humans for at least 2688 years. The humans have had plenty of practice to get their planting just right :)

Where space is limited these Yew trees Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata’ are a perfect fit. Another extremely popular plant all around the city is Loquat – Eriobotrya japonica (right), a native to China, the plant is prized for its sweet, citrus-like fruit that grows in clusters. The fruit, seeds, and leaves have been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years.

Platanus orientalis- Oriental planes are some of the world’s most pollution tolerant plants so it’s no wonder you find them in cities with temperate and Mediterranean climates all around the world. In the narrow ancient streets of the Sultanahmet, the trees are often planted very close with the lower limbs lifted above the rooftops, the effect being a comfortable shade to walk in and amazing light filtering through the canopies.

Although trimming trees and shrubs in cities and residential areas is often necessary, and still looks great in my opinion, when you have the space leaving trees to take their natural form around buildings can be even more striking.
Proper plant selection and spacing to start with are key here. This Punica granatum – Pomegranate and  Prunus cerisifera ‘Nigra’ – Purple Plum are great choices In this scenario outside the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul

The Topkapı Palace/Topkapı Sarayı is now a large museum in the east of the Fatih district of Istanbul but originally served as the main residence and administrative headquarters of the Ottoman sultans during the 15th and 16th centuries. The whole place is really impressive including the landscaped gardens.

This is the buttress of the old olive tree you can see between the Cupressus chamaecyparis trees in the above photo. The grounds of the place used to be an ancient olive grove and it got me thinking how old the tree could be. I could not find any reference to the age of this particular tree but was fascinated to learn that (as of 2018), the oldest olive tree in Turkey and one of the oldest olive trees in the world is located in the ancient city of Teos in Izmir’s Seferihisar town. A whopping one thousand eight hundred trips around the sun!

The palace grounds have a number of buildings that each had some specific function during the days of the Ottoman Empire. Many of the buildings have extended intricately decorated eaves that contrast beautifully with the tree canopies around them I thought

Star Jasmine – Trachelospermum jasminoides, seen here climbing the walls, is super popular around the city and often used to cover metal fencing and brick walls in new developments as well as historical sites. On the right a magnificent specimen of Magnolia grandiflora another plant that is common around the city.



Other Street Plants

It’s always a pleasure to find volunteer plants in urban areas and this Medicago sativa – Alfalfa plants growing on the roadside below the high rise towers were looking very comfortable.

I was not aware of how well Punica granatum – Pomegranate (left) responds to trimming, making them a great option for hedging.  Another plant that responds well to trimming and planted all over Istanbul as specimen trees, hedging, and shrubs is Laurus nobilis – Bay Laurel.  Generally speaking, the dense growth that forms from repetitive trimming of any plant provides excellent habitat, within the growth for nesting birds, spiders, and range of other invertebrates.


I’m not sure what the species on the left is, nor the cultivar that gives the tree the unique contorted and partially pendula frame but I really like it, especially so contrasted against the grey skies and stark stones walls of Topkapi Palace. On the right, a magnificent example of an elderly  Robinia pseudoacacia – Black Locust in Abbasagga Park in Besiktas. These plants age so well

Hottentot-fig – Carpobrotus edulis is commonly used as ground cover on roadside plantings, sunny dry banks in parks, and communal areas around apartments. This ground-creeping plant with edible succulent leaves and flowers is originally from South Africa.  A friend gave me a small plant years ago and we have trays of them growing in the nursery now. They are super easy to propagate, rooting from a fleshy leaf pushed into a sowing medium and will establish a good root system within a summer. We cannot plant them outside in our climate (USDA 5b – 6a ) as they will not tolerate frosts but they do survive in the sunroom over winter where temperatures are kept above 0 Celsius. I’ve not tried the flowers yet but the freshly sprouting leaves make a reasonably good, occasional nibble


As you move away from the tourist areas of Istanbul and into the residential parts of the city, it’s quite incredible how many small businesses there are offering fresh food, whether that be fruits, vegetables, fish, smoothies, pastries, and bread. Often the businesses are family run and in some cases, the family makes up the complete supply chain, with some members growing the produce, others picking, packing, and delivering and others selling to customers in the city in open markets or stores.

Rooftop Farm – Levent

Unbeknown when I booked my Airbnb I later found out that the buildings I can see from my window have a rooftop farm growing on them. I set out to explore the farm the next day.

You can access the farm, and outside the cafe area, from the top floor of the shopping mall, Akmerkez.  It’s a small garden, mainly for demonstration/education purposes, exemplifying, gardening on raised beds, composting, aquaponics, hydroponics, etc. It’s a nice little demo spot and for more info on the garden see here.

It’s great to see these gardens in the cities and I’ve visited a number of these rooftop/urban farms/community gardens in various cities. It seems to me they are always relatively small, the access is always very tight, with tight angles making it difficult to flow around and difficult to maintain. I’ve yet to experience a strong emotional response in one of these “urban ecological projects”, a strong emotional response like you will often be struck with when you stumble upon a particular wild patch of plants or wandering around a well-designed domestic garden or park.  I should add that my sample size is small based on 5 gardens mainly in and around London, this one in Istanbul and a community garden in Sofia so perhaps there are better examples. If you know of some please let me know.

I don’t see any good reasons why beautiful, biodiversity enhancing, productive gardens, that people will marvel at, cannot be created. This is something we intend to dedicate more resources and time to in our gardens in Shipka moving forward as we are looking to amalgamate a 3ha plot to start work on in the near future. Part of the work I’m doing during my travels is designing this garden. The garden’s working name is Stoa. Named after a great hall in Athens in which the ancient Greek philosopher Zeno gave the founding lectures of the Stoic school of philosophy. Pretentious? mihi?


Stoa – The proposed site of our new Regenerative Landscape Design Project in Shipka

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.

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