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Plant Focus

The Compton oak at Colonial Williamsburg
A natural hybrid between Quercus lyrata (overcup oak) and Q. virginiana (Southern live oak)

Hayrettin Karaca (1922–2020)

Hayrettin Karaca, an IOS member and one of Turkey's best-known environmentalists, died January 20 at the age of 97. He received a Lifetime Service Award from the IOS in 2012 in recognition for his work restoring eroded environments in Turkey by planting acorns to establish oak forests and rehabilitate oak stands and coppices.

Hayrettin Karaca Hayrettin Karaca (Source: TEMA)

Hayrettin was born on April 4, 1922, in Turkey's western province of Balikesir, and built a successful textile business in the first part of his life. However, in the 1970s, he became increasingly concerned with the environmental degradation he witnessed during his travels around Turkey, especially soil erosion.

In 1980 he founded the first private arboretum of Turkey. Located in the northwestern province of Yalova, Karaca Arboretum's story began as a house garden project in 1976 when Karaca's botanical interest led him to transform his garden into an arboretum. While traveling around Turkey searching for plants, he witnessed massive erosion, disappearance of plant varieties, ruined grasslands, springs that had run dry, and the sad remnants of forests claimed by fire, developers, or farmers looking for new croplands. 

Karaca Arboretum covers an area of 33 acres and contains rock gardens, rosaries, iris gardens, miniature plants, and indigenous bonsai plant collections. Special plant collections include Acer, Prunus, Malus, Magnolia, Quercus, Betula, Pinus, Abies, and Picea species. It holds over 7,000 species, subspecies, varieties of plants and received an Arboretum Distinguished for Merit Award from the International Dendrology Society in 2004.

Karaca Arboretum Karaca Arboretum (Source: Karaca Arboretum)

In 1992, together with fellow businessman Nihat Gökyiğit, Karaca founded TEMA Foundation (Türkiye Erozyonla Mücadele Ağaçlandırma ve Doğal Varlıkları Koruma Vakfı – The Turkish Foundation for Combating Soil Erosion, for Reforestation and the Protection of Natural Habitats). Its mission is to raise public awareness of environmental problems, specifically soil erosion, deforestation, biodiversity loss and climate change. TEMA has launched numerous initiatives to influence government and business practices. It has designed and carried out around 150 demonstration projects on sustainable rural development, reforestation, biodiversity conservation, and sustainable land management across the country.

Due to his environmental activism, Karaca became a well-known and beloved public figure in Turkey, where he was known affectionately as “Toprak Dede” (“Grandpa Earth”). He often took the opportunity to educate children and young people about the importance of protecting nature.

His numerous awards include the Forest Hero Award from the UN in 2013 and the Right Livelihood Award, commonly known as the Alternative Nobel Prize, in 2012 “for a lifetime of tireless advocacy and support for the protection and stewardship of our natural world, combining successful entrepreneurship with effective environmental activism.”

“One should not consume more than one needs,” he often said. “You might have the money that allows you to consume, but you don’t have the right.” He stopped spending money on clothes and was known for wearing the same red sleeveless sweater for decades, particularly at tree events. It was given to him by his son, made from left-over yarn.

“The carrying capacity of the ecosystem is not unlimited,” Karaca told the Right Livelihood Foundation in a 2012 interview. “I cannot exist without the Earth’s vital life-support systems. Therefore I should not destroy what is necessary for me to live. I do not have the right to ruin or destroy the ecosystem.”

Hayrettin joined the International Oak Society in 2000 and attended the 3rd IOS Conference in Ashville, North Carolina. In the fall of 2002, TEMA hosted a 7-day IOS Tour of Turkey, which included a visit to Karaca Arboretum, where Hayrettin fed the group so generously that they were late arriving at their hotel! During the visit the oak enthusiasts spotted an unusual oak, apparently a hybrid of Q. rysophylla: it was propagated and later named Quercus ‘Zehra’, after Hayrettin’s daughter.

“I recall so many things about Hayrettin,” said former IOS President Guy Sternberg, “his attention to detail, his glorious arboretum, and his passion for trees certainly are among them. But personally, two things stand out in my mind.

“The first was during the North Carolina conference in 2000, when he and Nihat Gökyiğit serenaded me at dinner with the Turkish version of Happy Birthday. I had just turned 53 during that event, and those two dapper gentlemen spontaneously brought down the house with everyone there stomping their feet and clapping in unison. This was a fun side of him I had not realized existed.

“The other, surely more important one, came a little later when I was in Turkey with a few other oak nuts. We learned about the project he and Nihat had begun with their TEMA Foundation. The goal was to ‘plant 10 Billion acorns to hug the soils of Anatolia’ (the Turkish region which had suffered so much from millennia of overuse and soil degradation). Their profound motto was 'Interfere in matters that are none of your business’!

“What better motto should we all share than that, and what better reason to recognize this and so many other environmental actions than with our Lifetime Service Award? I hope his arboretum, and his memory, will live forever.”

Further Reading

Tonge, D. The Karaca Arboretum. International Dendrology Society Yearbook 2013: 143-148.

Karaca, H. Acceptance Speech – 2012 Right Livelihood Award.

The Right Livelihood Foundation. Hayrettin Karaca (2012, Turkey). (Includes a video interview in Turkish, with English subtitles).