A natural retreat from the traffic and crowds of Istanbul, the 296-hectare Atatürk Arboretum, above, receives few visitors. But it contains more than 2,000 foreign and native plant species, including some species that can’t be found anywhere else in Turkey. Situated within the city’s Belgrade Forest, the arboretum is a research site for Turkish and foreign scientists, an educational experience for local schoolchildren, university students of forestry, and a haven for nature-lovers in Istanbul.
Highlights of the Atatürk Arboretum
Many of the arboretum’s most exotic species are located on the “lake trail”, which takes about 90 minutes to hike.
The trail passes through groves of Giant Sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum), Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), Ginkgos (Ginkgo biloba), Western Red Cedars (Thuja plicata), Chinese Parasol Trees (Firmana simlex), Hungarian Oaks (Quercus frainetto), Silver Maples (Acer saccharinum), the endangered Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), and, perhaps most unusually, swamp-dwelling Bald Cypresses (Taxodium distichum).
Native to the southern United States, Bald Cypresses can live to be more than 1,000 years old, and are remarkable for their elaborate, intertwining, underwater root systems.
The arboretum also boasts flowers you likely can’t find anywhere else in the area, such as Bieberstein’s crocus (Crocus speciosus) and bird of paradise flowers (Strelitzia speciosus). There are also a variety of edible berry and nut trees, including the Oriental Beech (Fagus orientalis), an endemic Turkish sweetgum tree (Liquidambar orientalis) and strawberry trees (Arbutus unedo).
The Atatürk Arboretum was an expansion of the first nursery ever founded in Turkey, in 1916, and some of the first trees planted in that nursery still remain today: the Atlas Cedar (Cedrus atlantica), Black pine (Pinus nigra) and Plain Elm (Ulmus minor).
Background on the Belgrade Forest
The rest of the Belgrade Forest, which can be accessed via trails from the Atatürk Arboretum, extends over an additional 5,000 hectares, and contains mostly deciduous oak trees interspersed with recreational areas and historical monuments.
In Ottoman times, royalty used the forest as a hunting ground and water supply. Visitors to the forest are likely to stumble upon one of 7 impressive dams that were built by the Ottomans 500 years ago. The dams are still used to supply 25 million cubic meters of water to Istanbul each year.
Although water storage is still the primary use of the forest, it is now a popular recreational area for picnickers, hikers, runners, and cyclists. The forest is also the living laboratory for research carried out by the Forestry Department at Istanbul University.
How to visit
The arboretum is free to the public on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but interested visitors can also arrange guided tours through companies such as Fest Travel.
A knowledgeable guide can make a visit to the arboretum far more rewarding. Necmi Aksoy, Associate Professor of Forestry at Duzce University, has spent much of his career researching the flora, rare and endemic plants in the Belgrade Forest, the Atatürk Arboretum and Istanbul.
“Atatürk Arboretum and the Belgrade Forest are the most popular and important nature areas of Istanbul, in terms of nature education,” says Aksoy.
“You can see people bird-watching with binoculars during the spring and autumn migrations, or local people collecting edible mushrooms and herbs to make traditional food.”
Read more about nature conservation in Turkey:
Star Wars Fairy Chimneys Threatened By Power Plants and Discos!
Hydroelectric Dam Threatens “Ecological Massacre” In Turkey
In Remotest Anatolia, Lone NGO Speaks Up On Nature’s Behalf
Images by Julia Harte