Purslane Over the Years: Small in Size, Big in Importance

The wonderful purslane, semizotu in Turkish, is a part of the Portulacaceae family, which contains around “15 genera and 500 species of herbs or small shrubs” found mostly on the Pacific Coast of North America and southern South America (Brittanica, “Portulacaceae”). According to one article, purslane probably originated in Western North America or South Africa (Prairieland Community Supported Agriculture). According to a Cornell University article, the origin of purslane is very unclear (Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences). I am not sure how exactly purslane came to Istanbul but it is possible it came directly from Africa or from Greece as it was popular there. (Ibid) It has been found in many archaeobotanical searches in Greece at prehistoric sites so dates way back (The Plant Encyclopedia). Purslane’s ability to produce up to 52,300 seeds in a single plant which “can survive for up to 30 years in undisturbed soil” make it quite popular and may have factored into its quick spread throughout the world (Ibid). Purslane has been found all over the world and according to the Plant Encyclopedia, it was in Crawford Lake deposits in 1430-89 AD, revealing again its spread (The Plant Encyclopedia). While only the leaves are eaten for the most part, the stem can also be eaten. The modern crop in bostans in Istanbul (portulacaceae oleracea scientifically), a potherb grown throughout Europe, contains the green stem and leafs, which are fairly low to the ground (Brittanica, “purslane”). Its wild form is considered to be a weed and contains “small yellow flowers” (Ibid).

 

In terms of requirements for growth, purslane is special in that its known for its longevity as it can grow in “dry waste soil and can retain enough moisture to bloom and ripen seeds long after they have been uprooted” (Brittanica, “purslane). Thus, purslane thrives in many different environments and conditions. However, the best conditions for growth according to the Plant Encyclopedia, are in “rich, mid-fertility” soil, “medium, well-drained moisture” and a water pH of 7 (The Plant Encyclopedia). It serves culinary purposes today but has also functioned medicinally throughout time in many societies. In the Geoponika, the Byzantine farming manual, purslane is mentioned throughout as helping in the growth and preservation of fruits such as grapes (IV.15) and pomegranates (X.35) (Geoponika 122, 214). Interestingly today, it still functions to support the growth of other vegetables. It states in the Plant Encyclopedia, “Purslane provides ground cover to create a humid microclimate for nearby plants, stabilizing ground moisture. Its deep roots bring up moisture and nutrients that those plants can use” (The Plant Encyclopedia).

 

My first interaction with purslane was at the bostan in Yedikule right next to the church. While taking a number of measurements at different corners throughout the bostan with the hot sun beating down on me, I saw some people I was with reach down to taste a little green leaf. I did the same and once I started, I could not stop. I later learned that little, soft green leaf was purslane (semizotu) and it had the biggest presence in this particular bostan compared to everything else growing in the bostan, presumably revealing its popularity in the area. As I tore off a piece and tasted it, it was if I suddenly became a little kid in a candy store tasting the most delicious piece of candy. It was both refreshing and salty and a bit crunchy. It wasn’t too flavorful but enough so that I could not resist grabbing more (and then buying some right before departing). I loved it for its simple, easy to miss flavor yet its freshness at the same time. In the Geoponika, the refreshing, hydrating quality of purslane is revealed when it says, “The leaf, placed under the tongue, makes one less thirsty” (Geoponika XII.40, 266). This was my first time tasting purslane but since trying it, I have seen it everywhere, often accompanied by a yogurt sauce, which is a very typical Turkish dish called Yoğurtlu Semizotu (below is a recipe for this dish from About.com). I am not a fan of this dish as I think the yogurt drowns the purslane and the person consuming the dish cannot truly taste the green. This could be more a personal preference as I like very simple dishes with minimal sauce. In class a couple weeks ago, we ate purslane with a bit of olive oil and some spices and I thought that was absolutely delicious. I found a “green lentil and purslane salad” in “Time Out Istanbul” which sounds appealing since it is quite simple (Time Out Istanbul). Purslane is a delicious green whose small size contradicts its great presence and functions throughout time.

Following recipe from About.com:

Ingredients:

  • 2 to 3 large bunches of purslane (enough to yield 4 cups of leaves)
  • 3 cups plain Turkishstrained yogurt or Greek yogurt
  • 2 large garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

First cut off any roots from the purslane. I always wash and drain it twice to make sure there is no soil or grit left on the leaves.

Separate the leaves from the stems. You can save the stems for use in other recipes if you wish. Spin the leaves in a salad spinner to remove any extra moisture.

In a separate bowl, whip together the other ingredients using a wire wisk until smooth and creamy. Adjust the amount of salt and pepper to your taste.

Add the purslane leaves and mix together well. Make sure all the leaves are covered with the yogurt mixture.

You can serve it immediately, or cover and chill it for several hours or overnight. The flavor actually gets better if the salad rests for a while. Gently stir it again before serving.

2014-07-22 17.00.18

Purslane. Photograph Taken by Rosenthal. August 2014.

Purslane. Photographs taken by Rosenthal. July 2014.

Bundle of Purslane. Photograph taken by Rosenthal. July 2014.

 

Works Cited

About.com. “Purslane With Strained Yogurt And Garlic Is Called ‘Yoğurtlu Semizotu.’” Accessed 3 August 2014. <http://turkishfood.about.com/od/MezeStarters/r/Purslane-With-Strained-Yogurt-And-Garlic.htm>.

Cassianus, Bassus. Geoponika: Farm Work: A Modern Translation of the Roman and Byzantine Farming Handbook. 2011. Totnes, Devon: Prospect Books, 9-55 and 246-267.

Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “Portulaca oleracea.” Web. Accessed 3 August 2014. <http://www.ansci.cornell.edu/plants/medicinal/portula.html>.

Encyclopaedia Britannica Academic Edition. “Portulacaceae.” Web. 3 August 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/471686/Portulacaceae>.

Encyclopaedia Britannica Academic Edition. “purslane.” Web. 3 August 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/484198/purslane>.

Prairieland Community Supported Agriculture. “Produce Recipes: Purslane.” Web. Accessed 3 August 2014. <http://www.prairielandcsa.org/recipes/purslane.html>.

The Plant Encyclopedia. “Portulaca oleracea.” Web. Accessed 3 August 2014. <http://www.theplantencyclopedia.org/wiki/Purslane>.

Time Out Istanbul in English. “Istanbul’s top 20 salads.” Accessed 3 August 2014. <http://www.timeoutistanbul.com/en/fooddrink/article/2423/Istanbuls-top-20-salads>.

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The Puzzles of the Gardens from the 10th Century Onwards

In some cases, the more you learn about a topic, the more questions arise and the further from the truth it seems you become. The role of the bostans throughout history both fascinates and frustrates me for this very reason. Last week, we looked at a few photographs of a former Yedikule bostan in the Fatih neighborhood. In class, we discussed how the photographs we looked at painted a linear progression of this bostan from a fertile land to an abandoned area but that that wasn’t necessarily the case. What happened in between these snapshots? Are we to believe the area was unchanged and static in between the images? My guess is no. Continuing with the idea that spaces do not follow a linear progression in terms of function, last Thursday we visited the former Langa bostan (famous for its cucumbers) where it became apparent that the area went from being a land area, to one filled with water that became a central port, back to land whose alluvial soil made it the perfect place for a bostan. Part of the bostan has already been destroyed to build a metro station and another part will soon be destroyed to build a parking lot — the thought alone saddened me. The function of this space is in no way linear over the years, which leaves me wondering what function other garden sites have played throughout history. This past weekend, other students enrolled in the Harvard summer school program and I were fortunate enough to journey to Gallipoli and ancient Troy. While at Troy, I was greatly intrigued by a well I saw dating back to c. 300 BCE. My curiosity regarding this well, its function overtime, and what that says about the surrounding space continue to leave me with more questions than answers.

Aside from the living remnants and literary and pictorial sources describing the gardens, some surviving primary sources on gardens dating back to the 10th century AD with the publication of the Geoponika exist today to aid the study of gardens’ historical past. The Geoponika, a Byzantine Greek farming manual from the 10th century AD dedicated to Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus, reveals the many influences and techniques of farming practices dating back to the 3rd century BC as well as the important role farming played not only for pragmatic purposes but also for medicinal, therapeutic, and leisurely ones (Dalby, Geoponika, 247). In Book 12, part 2, entitled “Making a vegetable garden,” Andrew Dalby translates Florentinus’ section as, “Gardening is essential to life. For health and convalescence a garden should be developed not at a distance from the house but in proximity to it, where it will give enjoyment to the eyes and pleasure to the sense of smell.”(Dalby, 247) Additionally, Dalby notes that Homer and Hesiod are quoted and language used primarily in the 3rd century BC appear in this text, showing the longstanding history and presence of gardens (Dalby, 13). The many authors cited in this text further reveal the great focus on gardens through history. However, as this was a text only members of the elite had access to, were there different practices others followed or are these the only ones? Two typikas, “Typikon of Athanasios Philanthropenos for the Monastery of St. Mamas in Constantinople” and “Typikon of Theodora Palaiologina for the Convent of Lips in Constantinople” from the 12th and 13th centuries, respectively, law books for monasteries, reveal the important role gardens played in providing food as much of the diet was fruits and vegetables. From this information, can we say most monasteries relied heavily on fruits and vegetables during these periods? Two surveys from 1455 and 1735 survive today which also reveal the presence of bostans in numerous quarters during these years. The 1735 survey tells us there were 344 bostans with 1,381 gardeners employed (“The Survey of the Bustans (Gardens) in Istanbul intramural from 1735”).

While these three sources make it clear that gardens were numerous when these sources were written and played an important role throughout history, they leave the reader with a number of new questions to ponder. What was the situation of gardens in between these periods? Do these documents tell the entire story during the periods they were written? These sources also leave me with many questions regarding the sources’ weight in the present. How should these documents influence our views on bostans and the preservation of them today versus how do they? These documents are clearly instrumental to the study of the agricultural past but what do they say about the present and the future? Is the historical presence and importance of gardens evidence enough for the preservation of them? Despite the many missing pieces of the puzzle, it is clear the importance of the gardens in history is truly immense and the primary sources discussed earlier further speak to that.

Yedikule Gardens from the 1890s to Present Day as seen through Photographs

What is truly fascinating and surprising to me upon close examination of the images of Yedikule Gardens, the gardens that sit near the intersection of the Theodosian walls and the Marmara Sea in the Fatih neighborhood, are the similarities in the images of the region taken in the 1890s, February 1937, 1938, and today in July of 2014 (see below for images). In all the photos, the Theodosian Walls and the surrounding structures, built around the 5th century by the Romans to protect the city, are present. From the images, it is as if the part of the Theodosian Walls that border the Yedikule garden are meant to protect the garden. Perhaps this is due to the contrast in size of the tall walls to the large, lower expanse of ground with much shorter houses beyond. The relative strength in height of the walls is not only meant to keep intruders out of the city but also to keep intruders away from anything near the walls. Interestingly, the Yedikule gardens lie on the side outside the Theodosian Walls but the power of the wall still seems to be threatening outsiders from approaching. Or is the outsider in this case the inner city of Istanbul? It is as if the Theodosian Walls are meant to protect aspects of the city of Istanbul from itself as the beautiful antiquity of the Walls denotes a preservation of history, which the Yedikule gardens embody, and which the city’s desire to develop the area into a modern recreational area does not. Not only do activists fight to keep the gardens alive and prevent the city from destroying the gardens but the loud, inanimate Walls do too.

While the images appear quite similar to me, a few differences can be detected. A difference in the landscape of the area can be seen when comparing one photo to the next. The multitude of trees present in the 1890s image is invisible in the 1937 and the 1938 ones, paving the way for garden space. Current images of the area show the abandoned and uncared for former gardens standing right between the same Walls and houses (with some developments) as if begging the question of why everything surrounding the gardens has been preserved while the continuation of the gardens is in question today.

It is clear that gardens have been present throughout Istanbul’s history beginning in the Byzantine period and during the Ottoman Empire. As Aleksandar Shopov and Ayhan Han write in their paper “Yedikule Market Gardens and the New Istanbul Topographies: Expansion of Agricultural Land in Ottoman Istanbul in the Seventeenth Century,” according to one document from 1735, 344 gardens existed with 1381 people employed within Istanbul (Shopov, Aleksandar and Ayhan Han, “Yedikule Market Gardens and the New Istanbul Topographies: Expansion of Agricultural Land in Ottoman Istanbul in the Seventeenth Century,” 3). While mentions of the Yedikule Gardens from certain time periods are lacking as Shopov and Han write, the Yedikule Gardens carry Istanbul’s history of gardens in one of the few gardens still remaining (Ibid, 3-4). In Henry Maguire’s essay “Gardens and Parks in Constantinople,” he speaks of the strong presence of gardens throughout the Byzantine empire evidenced through many writings despite the lack of them still standing (Maguire, Henry, “Gardens and Parks in Constantinople.”). And in Gulru Necipoglu’s piece “The Suburban Landscape of Sixteenth-Century Istanbul as a Mirror of Classical Ottoman Garden Culture,” he speaks of the great role gardens played as spaces not only of economic growth but of leisure, relaxation, and enjoyment (Necipoglu, Gülru, “The Suburban Landscape of Sixteenth-Century Istanbul as a Mirror of Classical Ottoman Garden Culture”). Thus, when looking at the images of the Yedikule gardens overtime, the tall Walls seem to reinforce the importance of the Yedikule Gardens as a space of great history and antiquity.

 

Screen shot 2014-07-07 at 6.31.21 AM

Sebah, 1890s

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Artamanoff, February 1937

Nicholas V. Artamonoff Collection, RV53, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.

Screen shot 2014-07-07 at 6.35.13 AM

Artamanoff, 1938

Robert L. Van Nice Collection, 2012.0013.0031, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.

yedkule 1

Rosenthal, July 2014

Rosenthal, July 2014

Rosenthal, July 2014

Rosenthal, July 2014

Rosenthal, July 2014