Prepared by Romany people and sold during the holiday season leading up to the New Year, kokina is not just one plant, but two.
Kokina resembles mistletoe at first, but if you take a closer look, you will notice that it is actually two plants made into one. How? The red berries of one plant are hand-tied to the thorny green leaves of another, and voila! Kokina is born.
In Turkey, kokina is the Frankenstein plant that emerges during the holiday season, bridging Christmas into New Years, painstakingly – and painfully, if you consider the thorns – prepared by Romany people to decorate the homes of Istanbulites.
Kokina, sources say, means “red” in Greek, and the Greeks in Istanbul started the tradition of decorating with kokina during Christmas. It is no longer exclusive to Istanbulite Greeks, however, and you can see kokina decorating the houses of Turks and Greeks alike.
Florist Hasan Konak of Bebek Cicekcilik says Romany people forage the plants from forests and tie them together, and sell them to florists like himself. Asked if the forests are near Istanbul, Konak says when he last spoke to his contact, he was in Samsun, on the Black Sea coast.
“I suppose they didn’t find what they needed here, so they went there to collect,” he muses. “This plant is the most troublesome to prepare, to put together, to work on,” he notes. “It requires a lot of effort and care.”
Konak says kokina sells for 30 TL, or in supermarkets for 40-50 TL. The Romany people selling directly to the public sell it for 20-25 TL, he adds. The prices are for 6 sticks for one bunch.
Faruk Kaymaz, 48, of Istanbul, is a supplier of kokina to Bebek Cicekcilik, where Konak works. He says he forages for the thorny green parts of kokina from nearby forests in Istanbul, including Ormankoy, as well as the Belgrade Forest in the northern part of town.
“We collect the thorns separately from the red berries for three months,” he says. “It takes us a while to prepare them, you know.” He says that the red berries around Istanbul weren’t good enough, “so we went to Samsun to collect them. I also went to Caycuma, in Zonguldak [also in the Black Sea region] for them for a couple of weeks.”
Asked about the preparation process, Kaymaz says “you can make about a hundred kokina a day.” He says they sell for six-seven liras, sometimes 10. “It used to be 8 liras, then there was a price increase and now they go for 10 liras,” he says. “Right now there is a crunch, no one has goods, so the prices went up.” He is talking about a stick of kokina, instead of a bunch, which would cost, according to his math, 60 TL.
Kaymaz remembers his grandfather making kokina, “but there wasn’t as much demand back then.” He says in the last five-six years demand has skyrocketed, but he doesn’t know why exactly. “Perhaps it’s because it brings luck,” he offers. “You know, people believe it brings good luck and happiness.”
According to a 2019 article (link in TR) in Istanbul University Communications Faculty journal, Iletim, Romany flower seller Zeliha Yildirim explains: “Us Romany learned about this flower [kokina] from Istanbul Greeks years ago. Since then kokina is considered to be the flower of luck. When we were little kids, every year before New Year’s Eve we listened to stories about kokina.
“You won’t see a Romany family without kokina in their home by the end of the year. This belief goes back many years,” she adds. “We tell our customers who want to buy this flower that kokina is the flower of luck. If it keeps fresh until the next year without shedding its leaves, it means your wishes will come true – according to some legends, it means that person will become a house owner.”