Northwest Renovation Magazine

A Home Improvement Magazine

Agave in a Turkish field.

We are so very lucky to live in the Pacific Northwest. I’m telling you this, as if you didn’t already know. We are even luckier to be gardening in the Pacific Northwest (PNW). The more I travel to different places and take note of their climate and available plant material, the more I realize how truly lucky we are. We can plant almost anything here. It’s kind of crazy. Even plants that you think, “No way, we can’t plant that here,” like olive trees, agave (my favorite), and bananas, are totally doable.

I was thinking about this while traveling in Turkey this past November. We started out in Istanbul, headed south down the gorgeous Mediterranean coastline, headed due east to the middle of the country and then back north towards Istanbul, by way of Ankara. What an unbelievable trip! I cannot recommend Turkey highly enough. The people, the textiles, the architecture, art, music, food — you name it! Turkey is, by far, the coolest place I have ever been. Needless to say, we saw quite a bit of country and quite a bit of plant material, and I was amazed at how much was growing there (mostly native), that we could easily grow here.

A few of the plants that we came across, like varieties of agave, can be planted here, but I don’t think they are used as often as they should be. Except in my garden and that of my friend Loree, who is just as much of an agave, succulent, spiky plant junkie as I am. I might just make up for all the non-agave planters in the PNW by how many I have in my yard. I love agave. I love them so much that I bought a greenhouse to protect all my non-hardy agave, succulents, and cactus. I love them so much that I might just require a 12-step program. I have more than 45 varieties of agave in my garden. Most people would say, “I did not know there were 45 varieties of agave.” I would say that 45 is just the tip of the iceberg. I kind of did the same thing when I was really into lavender. I had 121 varieties of lavender. It was an illness. But I’m over that now and into agave. When I do something I love doing, I do it wholeheartedly. Just ask my patient husband.

The incredibly large agave species found in Turkey were volunteer plants, not intentional plantings. They were definitely native. The most prominent variety appeared to be agave Americana — and Americana variegata. I love how native plants just volunteer themselves to the landscape. They always seem to place themselves just right. We were seeing them among the ruins of Pergamum, Ephesus and Pumakkale, all of which are at least 2000 years old. The natural settings were amazing! There were huge native, arching pyracantha all along the coast line, dotting the landscape with their stunning red berries, as well as literal forests of native conical cypress, with their abundance of perfectly round cones. The 30-foot-tall cypress looked so natural among the limestone ruins; it really was quite a sight. When we see a Mediterranean style cypress tree over here, it is placed very intentionally and never randomly.

When we were in Thailand a few years ago, I was blown away by the wild wetland fields of giant lotus plants. I kept ‘thinking just how much money one individual lotus plant costs in the U.S. and how may thousands of them were just growing wild and unattended in Thailand. It was the same in Turkey with the agave and the cypress. Not that you can just magically whisk those plants away and into our marketplaces, but you know what I mean.

There were so many amazing plants just running amok in Turkey. While I seriously coveted all the agave, my plant-lust heart was stolen by a lowly little crocus. On our way to Konya in central Turkey, we stopped for lunch at an ancient kervansary, a 1000-year-old fortress along the Silk Route for travelers and their animals to avoid raiders and stay safe overnight. These buildings are huge, with their oversized fortress doors, interior courtyards and stables.

The Moorish-influenced architecture is quite a sight to be seen. So there we were for lunch, and in the desolate courtyard was the loveliest little tuft of yellow crocus. It had short, glossy green leaves — the brightest, most cheerful yellow flower ever — and was a delicate bright spot peeking out the heavy limestone fortress. After a little research when we got home, I found out it was crocus olivieri, subspecies Istanbulensis.

This brilliant yellow crocus, which blooms in late fall and is dormant the rest of the year, was discovered in 1911 by botanist Kevork Viçen Aznavur. It is found more often on the Anatolian side of Istanbul, in the Pendik-Kartal area. So now that I have identified it, I must try to find it and see if it can grow here. I would love to have something in my garden every fall to remind me of our wonderful trip.

As it turns out, almost all the plants we saw in Turkey can be grown and planted here. Which brings me back to my original point: we are so incredibly lucky to be living and gardening in the Pacific Northwest and we can plant almost anything — yippee!! So with the start of a new year, it is time to get out in the world a little more often and see what is growing around you! Here’s to dirt under your nails!

JJ De Sousa is the owner of digs inside & out, located at 1829 NE Alberta, Portland. She can be reached at 503-460-3447 or

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