Fruit Fell Like Rain

Why Istanbul's plum trees spark something of a frenzy in the spring

By / May 2013

From a shaded park bench in the Bahcelievler district of Istanbul, I spy a grown man shimmying around the crooked base of a plum tree. Catlike he bounds between branches to the top. Soon I can only glimpse his shoes treading the tightrope of a narrow limb as he strains to reach for an outlying plum.

It’s chilly out for a mid-April afternoon. The man wears a brown sweater. Into woolen pockets he stuffs small plums, or erik in Turkish. The fruit is bright green, not yet ripe, undoubtedly sour, undoubtedly crisp. These little green marbles are the envy of spring in Istanbul. Each year adults and children alike ransack the city’s trees of all available fruit.

Five years ago, on my first trip to Turkey, I was struck by the number and variety of orchards throughout the country. In the southeast I encountered expansive pistachio orchards. Driving westward along the Mediterranean toward the Aegean, I passed apricot farms, then fields of clementine and olive groves. Roadside venders under thatch-roofed stalls sold softball-sized pomegranate. Along the Black Sea coast, hazelnut, apple, and cherry trees blanketed the hillsides.

Much of the population of Istanbul traces its roots back to these places, to the rural villages of Anatolia. Their parents and grandparents were herdsmen or farmers. The land was their life. They had good reasons for leaving. The city is where the jobs are. But in retrospect their native turf begins to seem downright Arcadian compared with Istanbul, a place where buildings, parking lots, and buses are far more plentiful than livestock and fields. So it comes as no surprise that the city’s scattered fruit trees, this oddment of the rural life, should provoke something of a frenzy.

But the hysteria surrounding fruit isn’t a cultural phenomenon unique to Istanbul. As people from bucolic backgrounds acclimate to urban lifestyles in cities the world over, there often remains in them a deep longing to preserve the old ways. Agritourism, an industry predicated on reconnecting city types to the land via farm stays and other agricultural experiences, is ascendant, particularly in Europe and North America.

When our young family lived in a mid-sized Kentucky town, we often took our kids across the Ohio River to pick apples and peaches at an Indiana farm. Now that we live in the megacity of Istanbul, comparable outings are at once more desirable and more difficult to find. Two summers ago, we managed a getaway to Hungary and watched the kids get sick eating bowls upon bowls of cherries plucked fresh from the tree.

Then last spring we made a weekend jaunt with some Turkish families to Yalova, an hour-long ferry ride across the Marmara Sea south from Istanbul. Outside the guesthouse, on a hill overlooking the water, we discovered trees heavy with plums, mulberries, and peaches. Several of our friends climbed onto each other’s shoulders, stretching for the highest green erik. One of the older men climbed a mulberry tree and began to shake the branches violently. Below, a couple of the women held four corners of a bed sheet and caught the delicate fruit as it fell like rain.

Gradually my children are growing to share in the Turks’ enthusiasm for fruit trees. They take part in what has become an unofficial tradition in our neighborhood, the raiding of the plum trees at Milli Egemenlik Park. Aged women fill the surrounding benches and look on with a mixture of delight and fear as cocksure young climbers tempt fate to reach the farthest branches.

What fruit can’t be secured by climbing, shaking, or shoulder-standing is sure to be jarred loose by rocks hurled from below. One way or another, the plum trees of Istanbul will be all but emptied of their riches by mid-May.

But on this April day, the man in the brown sweater has run out of room in his pockets before the tree has run out of plums. Not ten minutes after disappearing into the cloud of green leaves he lands right next to my park bench, his face glistered with pride, his grin like that of a young hunter who has just bagged his first buck. He doles out a few of the plums to his wife and kids then offers me a handful.

As our ever-expanding world condenses into urban clusters, we long to return, to find a way home. In Istanbul, a climb up a plum tree seems the simplest path.


Brian McKanna is an EthnoTraveler contributor.