Horticulturist Hannah Gardner heads to Northern Cyprus in search of ox-blood red Tulipa cypria, the island’s elusive national flower
Horticulturist Hannah Gardner heads to Northern Cyprus in search of the island’s elusive ox-blood tulip
The varied and dramatic landscapes of Northern Cyprus are renowned in the botanical world for an astonishing variety of flora. The showy lily family is well represented with Fritillaria persica, Fritillaria acmopetala and tulips growing wild here. You’ll find spectacular limestone mountains, ancient olive and citrus groves, and a superb unspoilt coastline, with just a few scattered towns and villages along the way. Since the partition of Cyprus in 1974, Northern Cyprus has remained largely isolated (the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is still recognised only by Turkey). It feels authentic and retro, like a last undeveloped corner of the Mediterranean. Local initiatives seek to protect nature’s abundance by controlling overgrazing and celebrating the endemic island flora.
Inspiration for the trip
Since partition, the island’s capital Nicosia has also been divided and the city’s hebarium is inaccessible from Northern Cyprus. To fill this gap a new hebarium, housed in the main building of the Alevkaya Forestry Station, was founded in 1989 by the British Botanist Dr Deryck Viney.
The Alevkaya Herbarium holds nearly 1,250 specimens, including, taped on to thick, faded cartridge paper, the fragile specimen sheet for Cyprus’s national flower, the allusive dark ox-blood Tulipa cypria.
When to go
The wildflowers are best in March and April. The scorching sun desiccates the vegetation in summer, while autumn rain brings a fresh flush of flowers lasting well into the winter months.
Where to go
Tulipa cypria is a rare Cyprus endemic that flowers between March and April. Treasured populations are to be found in Northern Cyprus. A good place to start is near Koruçam. In March the nearby village Tepebasi holds an annual Tulip festival when guided botanical tours are available and festivities plentiful. Finding these slender feral beauties growing wild among the filagree foliage of giant fennel and scrub gave me goose pimples and left a lasting impression. Close relative Tulipa agenensis is widespread throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Common in Northern Cyprus it forms impressive displays on cultivated land. A bright scarlet with a prominent yellow blotch it is easily distinguished from its sultry cousin. Edible crown daisies, Glebionis coronaria, are also flowering at this time, draping the dusty hills with bright sheets of colour.
Continuing west to the lower northern foothills of the Kyrenia Mountains there are extensive areas of shrubby maquis. It is here you’ll find the honed-smooth, red-barked limbs of the eastern strawberry tree ( Arbutus andrachne), shrubby prickly oak ( Quercus coccifera) and pungent Pistacia terebinthus. Fiery yellow beacons of scented broom ( Calicotome villosa) punctuate the cultivated landscape of carob trees, olive groves and in spring the colourful and varied Ranunculus asiaticus.
Increasing in altitude the forests here are mainly Calabrian pine ( Pinus brutia) and cypress, the forest floor an ornate carpet of orchids in spring, among them the sculptural mauve flowers of Orchis anatolica, the confident shaggy Italian orchid ( Orchis italica) and a little later the endemic bee orchid Ophrys kotschyi.
The most picturesque route for driving to the Alevkaya Herbarium is to follow the twisting unmade ridge road that joins the Girne to Gazimagusa mountain road. The Herbarium, which is open daily (8am-4pm), has a picnic area shaded by pine trees and a small restaurant that provides delicious local food. Walking into the hills in autumn you’ll find the delicate lilac autumn squill ( Scilla autumnalis) hastily populates open ground with occasional groups of fragrant pale Narcissus serotinus scenting the breeze.
Stretching towards mainland Turkey the wonderful Karpaz Peninsula is populated by roaming herds of wild donkeys. The vegetation is mostly garigue, and empty sandy beaches that have their own unique flora including the spectacular white beach lily, Pancratium maritimum, that flowers in the autumn. Tulipa cypria can also be found here near Avtepe where the villagers also honour the endemic tulip with another annual festival in spring.
Plants to grow at home
The wild red tulips discussed here are sadly neither available nor easy to grow in cultivation. However, there is a beguiling scarlet species tulip from the northern coast of Turkey that, while extinct in the wild (a cautionary tale of over collection during the late 19th century), is thriving in cultivation. Tulipa sprengeri is the latest of the species tulips to flower. With strong narrow stems of 30-40cm, its habit is graceful and understated, the currant-red flowers opening in the sunshine of early May. Tulipa sprengeri is happy in partial shade but needs some sun for its flowers to open fully. In a garden setting it will naturalise and seed if the seedheads are left on the plant to ripen over the summer months. I grow them in areas of unmown grass alongside Tulipa acuminata and Camassia. The small bulbs work their way deep into the fertile but free-draining soil, avoiding predation by squirrels, their group steadily increasing – although patience is required as you have a four-year wait from seedling to flower.
Guides and maps
Walking in Cyprus: 44 Walks in the South and the North by Nike Werstroh and Jacint Mig (Cicerone, 2017). Wild Flowers of Cyprus by George Sfikas (Efstathiadis, 1992).
Where to stay
TasEv Guesthouse Müftü Ziyai Efendi Sokak 33, Leftkosa.2369, Cyprus. Tel +90 542 862 1379, tasevlefkosa.com An old stone townhouse in Turkish northern Nicosia, also known as Leftkosa. RevakliEv Guesthouse Karpaz Anayolu, Rizokarpaso, 8999. Cyprus. Tel + 90 542 874 21 60, revakliev.com A romantic pension on the Karpaz Peninsula.