Wednesday, June 07, 2006
Linden (Lime) Tree
Linden or Lime Tree
The Linden or Lime tree (Tilleul in French) is the Plant of the Day in the French Republican Calendar for Prairial 18. But it’s a bit early for the lindens in Seattle. In July, they are in their heyday, dripping with fragrance and honeydew.
I first became acquainted with the linden about seven years ago when I was working for a dance organization in Ballard. Before that I thought of them as trees that lined avenues in European cities or roads approaching country estates in England.
But one day in July on my way to the office, I smelled this incredible haunting fragrance. I looked all over the block but couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. This went on for days, driving me crazy, until finally I looked up and saw the small white flowers on the trees lining the street.
The fragrance is so wonderful, I couldn’t figure out why lindens weren’t everywhere, until I parked my car under one and returned to find it covered with tiny, sticky drops of honeydew from the aphids that thrive on lindens. A small price to pay for the intoxicating scent but I could see why they might be unpopular on streets where cars park regularly. Ballard is an older neighborhood of Seattle and I imagine the trees were planted in the Thirties or Forties.
Even after I no longer worked in Ballard, I would go back every July to smell those trees. Imagine my surprise when a few years ago, I was walking near the elementary school my daughter attended, and found two more mature lindens in bloom. And the following year, I found two trees just three blocks from my apartment on Capitol Hill. In fact, Chester the Dog and I just walked over there to see if they were in bloom. Not yet, as far as we could see (and smell).
Here’s what I learned about lindens on the Internet:
Because the wood is soft and creamy, “cuts like cheese,” according to one website, it’s easy to carve and is used for fine carving, making models, guitar bodies, and piano sounding-boards. It’s also used to make artist’s charcoals and it’s the wood favored by icon painters, because it’s easy to sand and never warps. The fibrous inner bark, which is called bast (from which derives another name for the tree, basswood), can be used to make ropes, nets and bags for carrying things.
The leaves are heart-shaped, slightly serrated on the edges and pale on the underside. The flowers hang from the middle of ribbon-like bracts. They are tiny with five yellowish-white petals. The scent is so strong you can smell it a mile away. Bees especially love lindens which is why lindens are also called “Bee Trees.” The flowers can be dried and used to make tea., which is considered good for headaches, insomnia, nerves and purifying the blood. Grieve says a bath in the infused flowers is good for hysteria. The sweet sap can be made into wine.
Funk & Wagnalls says that Scythian soothsayers turned to the linden when prophesying and wound its fingers around their fingers as they spoke. In Estonia and Lithuania, women made sacrifices in front of linden trees, asking for fertility and domestic tranquility. When Zeus and Hermes wanted to thank an old couple (Philomen and Baucis)for their hospitality, they turned the man into an oak and the woman into a linden, which grew up side by side their branches intertwining. In Germany and the Tyrol, dwarves and dragons (called Linden worms) hang out around linden trees.
For the Slavs, lindens were the habitation of the goddess of love; later they became associated with the Virgin Mary, whose shrines are often found in front of linden trees in Slavic countries. Leslie Day writes that dryads or tree spirits were said to be wedded to Linden trees (I would certainly marry a linden tree if I were a tree spirit—or maybe a ponderosa pine, or a eucalyptus--no I can’t decide which is pretty much true for me in real life). In Roman mythology the Linden tree was a symbol of conjugal love and fidelity.
Day, Leslie, “Basswood Tree,” for The City Naturalist, a feature of the 79th Street Boat Basin Flora and Fauna Society in NYC
Funk & Wagnalls Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, edited by Maria Leach, Harper and Row 1984
Grieve, Mrs M., A Modern Herbal at
Odrowaz-Sypniewska, Margaret, “The Linden Tree—Lore and Signifance,” about the linden’s special meaning for the Slavs
Article from an old book on lindens
Webcam view of the Unter den Linden (Avenue of Lindens) in Berlin
Linden tree by Durer
Found on the site of Lyndhaven, the New Brunswick chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism
Color print of Tilleul by Nicolais Francois Regnault published 1774-1780