A beautiful scent filled the air, but to which plant it belonged I had no idea. I had often experienced the scent of thyme in the mountains during spring, but never perfumed mountains in this way. The scent turned out to come from the yellow flowers of a species of rhododendron, known in Turkish as forest roses. These bushes with their large flowers could be seen sometimes in small groups and sometimes covering the ground as far as the I could see. I was reminded of these lines by the poet Orhan Veli: 'This world drives one mad / This tree beflowered from top to toe'. In a sea of yellow and purple flowers, happiness is indeed close to madness. Five species of rhododendron grow wild in Turkey. My passion for these lovely flowers began by coincidence. I had always visited the Black Sea region during the summer months, and so had never seen the rhododendrons in bloom. Yet at the end of August one year, I noticed a single flower that for some reason had bloomed out of season.
The rhododendron becomes more common the further eastward one goes, growing in forests and forests glades in the Black Sea mountains. The first flowers appear in early May and continue until the end of June, or until mid-July at higher altitudes such as in the Kackar Mountains.
In the western Black Sea region, Rhododendron ponticum with its purple flowers are more common. Despite their beauty, they are not well liked by forestry authorities, because these sturdy evergreen bushes are surface-rooting, and so spread rapidly, forming impenetrable thickets and impeding forest growth by preventing the seeds of trees from taking root. That is why, in some areas rhododendrons are cleared to encourage young trees to gain a foothold. The woody branches of the purple rhododendron are widely used for firewood by local people.
Not only foresters but honey producers look on rhododendron as a pest rather than an asset.This is because the flowers contain certain toxins, with the result that honey produced by bees which have visited these flowers is poisonous, and is only used by some herbalists as an ingredient of medicines. The purple rhododendron is known by such local names as kara asu (dark poison) and komar, and the yellow species (Rhododendron luteum) as sari asu (yellow poison) or zifin. The latter is more poisonous than other species, and local people take care that their animals do not graze on the grass beneath these bushes, particularly after it has rained.
Over 600 species of rhododendron grow wild in Asia, North America, Europe and Australia, their habitat being hills and mountains in temperate areas with high rainfall. The great majority, over 400 species, are native to the Himalayas and China. The rhododendron is so admired that there are numerous societies of rhododendron fanciers around the world, and from the late 19th century rhododendron seeds and plants were introduced to Europe's parks and gardens.
In London, for instance, rhododendrons are a feature of almost every park, and the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens has the world's largest collection of rhododendrons species. So long as they are protected from full sunlight and cold winds, and the soil is sufficiently acid, rhododendrons will thrive. Large numbers of hybrids and cultivars have been developed by horticulturalists, including over 400 from northern Turkey's Rhododendron ponticum.
One misty late afternoon when I was returning from the alpine pasture of Kulakkaya in Giresun, I stopped to chat with a shepherd, Ali Kemal, and while talking noticed a flower of a different colour amongst the blooms of the yellow rhododendron. He explained that this reddish orange coloured flower was a different type of rhododendron which grew nowhere else but here.
Then last year I was astonished to see that a group of yellow rhododendrons in a different part of the same pasture had produced orange blooms. Now I am waiting with anticipation to see whether this colour change takes place in any of the other patches of dark yellow rhododendrons in this area.
Unlike the evergreen purple rhododendron, the yellow rhododendron is deciduous, but in the course of losing its leaves for the winter produces a show as beautiful as its blooms in spring. The leaves turn first yellow, then red and finally brown, creating a riot of autumn colour similar to that of beech trees. So it is not only in spring that these rhododendrons ornament the forested mountains of the Black Sea to such spectacular effect.
* Halil Ibrahim Tutak is a photographer