The biggest bean in the world, carnivorous plants, Chinese roses, palm trees from Madagascar, s, mangos, coffee trees, cactuses, all hidden in the same garden, itself hidden in one of İstanbul’s most visited areas, Süleymaniye.
There is no sign at the entrance. Or rather, there is a misleading one: “İstanbul Müftülüğü” (İstanbul Mufti’s Office). The two places share the same address. Cross the door, and the garden is a few meters away on the right. You will see a two-storey building, then a 15,000-square-meter garden and a breathtaking view of the Bosporus.
İstanbul University Heilbronn Botanical Garden is the oldest and biggest of its kind in Turkey. It was established 75 years ago by a trio of scientists who had fled Hitler’s regime in Germany: botanists Professor Alfred Heilbronn and Professor Leo Brauner and Professor Andre Naville, a zoologist. These academicians, among the brightest of their time, came to İstanbul upon the invitation of Atatürk following the university reforms.
The garden was created for educational purposes. Ever since 1937, students and academics from İstanbul University’s department of science have used it. They still make up most of the 25,000 visitors each year.
However, the place is open to everyone for free. “We welcome between 1,000 and 2,000 non-academic visitors a year,” says Assistant Professor Erdal Üzen, the successor of Heilbronn and Brauner as the garden’s manager. “Maybe it is because it says ‘mufti’s office’ on the front door. Or maybe people would never imagine that such a place could actually exist in İstanbul,” he suggests.
Those who know about it are often plant lovers and owners themselves. “Some of them bring us their plants when they go on holiday, or when they worry about them. Just as they would bring their pet to the doctor, they entrust their ‘green friends’ to us,” Üzen says. Another mission of the garden’s staff is to collect and protect endangered or extinct species. Its seven greenhouses, 23 pools and dozens of parcels host some very rare, if not unique, samples. Among them are a few “İstanbul natives,” as Üzen calls them.
Gladiolus byzantinus et al.
İstanbul has 57 plant species that are identified with its name, for example, the Ottoman roses, or the Gladiolus byzantinus. Some flowers have almost completely disappeared from İstanbul, like the blue star (in Turkish, the mavi yıldız). “Thanks to my predecessors, they still grow in our garden. It is a nice consolation,” Üzen says.
Üzen marvels at the richness of Turkey’s flora. “There are almost as many varieties of plants on the European continent [13,000] as there are in Turkey alone [12,000]. Besides, between 100 and 150 new plants are listed in this country each year,” he affirms.
In spite of that, botanical gardens in Turkey can be counted on one hand. That is all the more reason to preserve the existing ones. In the 1990s, Parliament made plans to move İstanbul University’s botanical garden to another location. Üzen, who has been working in this garden for more than 30 years, gets irritated when remembering that episode. “You can’t do that. It would be like signing the garden’s death warrant. What about our two 80-year-old Mongolian trees? What about our fossil plants, whose first samples date back to 280 million years ago?” he asks.
The garden’s paradox
Üzen considers himself a lucky man. His office overlooks the garden and the Bosporus and he still uses Heilbronn’s original bookcase. Every morning, he strolls amongst the 8,000 plants, trees and bushes. He notices everything, adding: “If a flower bloomed during the night, if another died, if a single pot has been moved to another place… And don’t ask me to choose between all of them. I am like a father who cannot choose between his children.”
And just like a father proud of his offspring, Üzen wants as many people as possible to admire it, to sit on its benches and smell its flowers. But in order to increase the number of visitors, the garden would need to open its doors on weekends. And to stay open on weekends, there would need to be more staff.
“One single cigarette can destroy this paradise. The garden needs permanent care and surveillance,” Üzen says, “This is the reason why, for instance, we don’t tag our most valuable samples, like the Ottoman roses. Because we can’t be sure that malicious visitors wouldn’t come and steal them all.”
Such is the paradox of this unique garden. The more secret it is, the more preserved it will remain. But Üzen can’t help himself. He urges all İstanbul residents and visitors to come and have tea in his botanical garden. As long as the tea is brought in a thermos bottle. You never know with kettles.