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Sığla- the Tree with Scars that Heal

Fresh tones of springtime green glow in the sığla forest right now, as the ground slowly hardens following the wetness of winter. Along the route my dog and I take a few times a week, around ten trees toppled on one stormy night in December, so our current walks involve navigating boggy terrain and fallen trunks. Some you clamber under, some you climb over, but it's worth it. The sığla forest is a mystical place, where monster vines weave and twist up and around trunks, and rushes (hasır) and horsetail (kırkkilit otu) bring ethereal texture to the ground.

Known also as günlük ağacı, in English the Anatolian sweetgum, and Latin Liquidambar orientalis, the sığla tree is endemic to southwestern Anatolia. Most remaining patches of forest lie near the coast between Marmaris and Fethiye, though areas of sığla woodland can also be found in the regions of Aydın, Burdur and also on the Greek island of Rhodes.

Sığla is a deciduous tree in the genus Liquidambar, with maple-looking leaves and round, spiky seed pods. It can reach heights of 20 - 30 metres. The tree prefers a year-round damp climate, though the forest takes on a new identity with each season. In the moisture of mid-winter, when its leaves turn to shades of red, purple and orange, before falling to the ground, the humidity and shelter within the sığla forest make it a paradise for fungi. In the stifling heat of the summer, the canopy provides relief from the high temperatures, and an intriguing aroma hovers in pockets in the air, permeating from the resin beneath the bark. The smell is something between spicy and solvent-y, the latter due to its natural styrene content. Interestingly, styrene was discovered about two hundred years ago as being a component of several trees, including sığla (Liquidambar orientalis), and was originally used in polystyrene production. Nowadays an industrially produced styrene monomer is used.

Wounded they stand with a sacrificial beauty

The resin of sığla trees, known as sığla yağı in Turkish or storax in English, has medicinal properties, and has been used for centuries to relieve the symptoms of many ailments including cuts, burns, skin ulcers, coughs, asthma, and bronchitis. Storax is also used as a fixative in soaps and perfume. If you venture through a well-established sığla forest you may well find some trees have long scars running down their trunks. This scarring is human-made, the carving of the trunks is necessary for resin extraction, though the practice is now illegal without license. It is somewhat paradoxical that the resin from its scars can heal, and it is quite emotive to see old wounds weeping on a warm summer's day.

Once the resin is harvested during the summer months, it goes through onsite refining and distillation processes. Kavakarası forest in Köyceğiz is one of the main storax producing sites in the region, covering almost 200 hectares which form part of The Köyceğiz and Dalyan Special Environmental Area. Though the area is protected, it is feared that the last generation of master resin extractors may soon not be replaced.

Roots, threats and fragmentation

It is perhaps worth noting here that sığla self-seeds quite easily. I speak from experience as we have a few trees in our garden in Yanıklar. Not only does it self-seed with ease, it falls with ease too. A winter storm is all that’s necessary to cause a sweetgum tree to topple, because they don’t root very deeply at all. In some clusters the roots are visible on the ground. Anyone who’s strolled through the small sığla woodland behind Akmaz beach in Çiftlik village, Fethiye, will know how important it is to watch your step, as protruding sığla roots make for hazardous terrain.

The ability to self-seed with ease is no advantage when humans decide land can be put to better use. Land clearing for agriculture over the past 100 years has proven a huge threat to the sığla forests, which are undeniably areas of unique eco diversity. Many patches of forest have been felled to make way for the orange, pomegranate and olive groves we now recognise as synonymous to Mediterranean living, though in past centuries much more of this stretch of coastline would have been dominated by sığla. It is estimated that the current total area of pure sweetgum forests in Turkey amounts to around 1,300 hectares, which marks a dramatic decrease since data recorded in the 1940s showed sığla forest areas at levels of 6000-7000 hectares. This fragmentation of habitat has led to the sığla being classified as a protected species, and ongoing efforts are being made to both preserve and revive the region’s most important tree.

Total forest immersion

In 2016 I took part in a project called Art for Nature, funded by the EU and Turkey’s joint venture the ‘Civil Society Dialogue’. Under the guidance of three artists from the UK’s Society of Wildlife Artists, the project brought together 25 Turkish artists and designers, with the aim of promoting awareness of the Sweetgum tree. We spent a week exploring and producing art in the sığla forests around Köyceğiz and Dalyan, learning about resin extraction, and hearing how the forest areas have slowly been destroyed over the past century. It was a fantastic opportunity to learn about sığla trees and spend hours totally immersed in the forest. The result of our visual exploration and documentation was a book titled ‘Art in Sweetgum Forests’. The pdf can be viewed here.

There was a time when sığla needed no protection. Fossil records show the tree has grown on Earth for around 60 million years. When I’m alone deep in the wild forest, weaving paths around trunks like a vine, I like to think I could be roaming around back then too, when bulldozers were of no concern and the trees stood unwounded, their secrets undiscovered, their habitat vast and unfragmented, though still toppling in the smallest of storms.


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