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H - 81 : Anatolia - Cradle of Flowers and Plants

Turkish Ceramic Tiles with Wild Flowers and Red Tulips at the Center

When looking at tiles in a Turkish Bazaar, you instantly notice the plethora of tulip designs. There are dozens of different motives, mostly in blue and red. Tulips were the Ottomans favorite flowers. Today they are Turkey’s national symbols. Their omnipresence made me believe that tulips are from Turkey. They are from Persia though. During the many military campaigns against the Persian Safavids in the 16th century, the Ottoman Sultans discovered and brought them to Istanbul. A hundred years later they found their way to Holland where they triggered the tulip mania.

Wild Iris in Anatlia's Mountains - this Part was once covered by Glaciers

When finding out the true origin of tulips, I stumbled on an unexpected discovery: the very high level of biodiversity in Anatolia. There are 11’707 different plant species in Turkey alone. One third (3’650) are endemic, meaning they do not exist in any other part of the world. Turkey has the highest level of biodiversity on the globe. Despite covering only 0.6% of the earth' landmass, Turkey is home to 2.5% of all plant species.

The Gypsum hills - Half Way betw. Ankara - Erzurum - are very rich in endemic Plant Species

Surrounded by the Med, the Aegean and the Black Sea, Anatolia was formed by plate tectonics. As the African plate moved north, it collided with Europe, folded Anatolia's mountain ranges and lifted its plateau to the current level. This process continues to this day and is the reason for Turkey's frequent earthquakes. Anatolia’s mountains are made from the floor of the former Tethys Sea – sedimentary rocks, salts, granites and sometimes basalts (volcanic rocks). The high levels of precipitations – almost twice as much as in England – result from the Mediterranean’s rising humid air and leads to a high level of erosion. Deep valleys and gorges cut through Anatolia’s mountains. The soil composition changes ever so often, creating many well-watered niches for plants to develop into their own species.

The Fertile Crescent with the Core Area (blue) where most of our cereals are from

Until writing this blog, it did not occurred to me that the high level of biodiversity is also the reason why the agricultural revolution started in this part of the world. Anatolia produced so many different plants that some of them became the predecessors of our staple cereals, vegetables and fruits. This ties in well with the archeological evidence such as the now famous Göbekli Tepe temple sites and the recent discovery of 11’300-year-old Boncuklu Tarla settlement in Turkey’s southeastern Mardin province. These first sedentary societies led the way to controlled food production – the agriculture we know today.

The Site of Boncuklu Tarla dates to 10'000 BC - Thousands of Beads were found here

Back to biodiversity. The level of Turkey’s genetic diversity is truly amazing. All of Europe – which is 13 times larger – has only 25% more species than Turkey. Its fragmented and isolated surfaces create geographically separated islands which favor spatial plant diversity. Diversity is highest around old rock formations where the soil changes constantly and lowest around younger, volcanic cores with more homogeneous soils. Last but not least, the several glaciations or lack thereof over the last half a million years also played an important role. Plant diversification is slow - evolution takes time. In Europe, the massive ice sheets always interrupted evolution. In Anatolia, only the top peaks were covered by glaciers. Most areas were ice free for millions of years. Evolution was never stopped.

During the last Ice Age, Anatolia's Mountains were mostly ice-free

Turkey's government today carefully protects the country's biodiversity. In several research centers, the genoms are sequenced and kept for future use. Many properties of the wild plants are not fully understood yet and may help in the development of new drugs and more efficient and resilient plant seeds. As we enter the age of molecular biology and artificial intelligence, we will definitely hear more about Turkey's plant diversity.

Biologists study Wild Einkorn Wheat in the Karacadag

Mountain Range in Anatolia




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