The intoxicating scent of lime trees

It’s at this time of year that, walking  the streets of this neighbourhood, you will suddenly be assailed by the most  intoxicating scent.  It took me a while to work out the source (made more difficult by the fact that the odour is more pronounced further from the source): it’s the scent of the blossom of the lime trees that are a feature of the avenues here and which are also conspicuous in Sefton Park (above).

The fragrance of the lime is wonderful, but there is a downside to it, as anyone knows who has parked their car under one. We have a lime outside our house and in the summer months find our car covered in the sticky, sugary  secretion of honeydew from the aphids that thrive on limes.

With their large, dark green, heart-shaped leaves limes are a popular shade tree in urban areas. The tree produces its small, sweetly scented white flowers in June and July. After the blossom has faded and fallen, the nut-like fruit, about the size of a pea, hangs on the tree in small clusters (below) that are shed in October.

Flowers of the lime

The scent is so strong you can smell it hundreds of yards away. Bees are especially drawn to limes and find the nectar so intoxicating that they can fall to the ground, stunned.  Apparently, honey from lime nectar is has a very distinctive flavour.

A lime (genus Tilia) can grow 130 feet tall and lives on average 500 years. There is a Tilia cordata at Westonbirt Arboretum in Gloucestershire said to be 2,000 years old.  A 900-year-old lime tree that was planted by Empress Cunigundi, wife of Henry II of Germany, stands at the Imperial Castle in Nuremberg.

The Linden or Lime Tree (Tilia)

Lime trees were planted by royal decree along many roads to ensure that the harvest of its flowers was plentiful, since it was valued for its medicinal properties.  Sitting under lime tree was said to cure epilepsy and other nervous illnesses.  The flowers would be dried and used to make tea, considered an efficacious treatment for headaches, insomnia and a nervous disposition.  The sweet sap was made into wine.

In continental Europe, the tree is more commonly known as the linden. Funnily enough, this was the original English name: lime is an altered form of the Middle English lind, meaning lenient or yielding, referring to the fact that the timber is soft and easily worked making it especially good for wood sculptures. Linden was originally the adjective, ‘made from lime-wood’ (equivalent to ‘wooden’):

Smooth linden best obeys
The carver’s chisel – best his curious work
Displays in nicest touches.

The 17th century sculptor Grinling Gibbons is regarded as the master of limewood carving.  He is famous for his virtuoso  limewood carvings of flowers, fruits, leaves, small animals, and cherubs, sculpted for Hampton Court Palace and St Paul’s Cathedral, where he made the carvings for the choir stalls (below, click on image to enlarge).

The tree figures in history and folklore across Europe.  In Slavic mythology, the linden was considered a sacred tree. In Estonia and Lithuania, women made sacrifices in front of linden trees, asking for fertility and domestic tranquillity.  For the Germanic peoples, too, the lime tree was hallowed, and judicial cases were often tried under a lime tree as it was said to inspire fairness and justice.   In German folklore, the linden was associated with lovers and romance, and appears as a romantic symbol in medieval poetry from the German lands and eastern Europe.  For example, there is a mediaeval love poem by Walther von der Vogelweide (c. 1170–c. 1230) that begins with a reference to the Tilia tree:

Under the Tilia tree
on the open field,
where we two had our bed,
you still can see
lovely both
broken flowers and grass.
On the edge of the woods in a vale,
tandaradei,
sweetly sang the nightingale.

 The tree figures prominently in German culture having been a highly symbolic and hallowed tree in Germanic mythology since pre-Christian times. As in Britain, villagers would assemble to celebrate and dance under a tilia tree, and to hold their judicial thing meetings.  It was believed that the tree would help unearth the truth and help to restore justice and peace.  In 1494, Albrecht Durer painted A Linden Tree on a Bastion (below).

When I was in Berlin many years ago, I didn’t realise, as I strolled down the Unter den Linden avenue that had only recently become accessible to all Berliners again after the fall of the Wall, that I was walking under the same trees that line the avenue where I live.  The Unter den Linden developed from a bridle path laid out by Elector John George of Brandenburg in the 16th century to reach his hunting grounds in the Tiergarten. It was replaced by a boulevard of linden trees planted in 1647, extending from the city palace to the gates of the city, by order of the Great Elector, Frederick William of Brandenburg.

Above is a view of Linden Allee from 1691, while the photo below shows the modern  Unter den Linden.

Another example of the symbolic power of the linden in German culture is this verse by Wilhelm Müller, der Lindenbaum, one of the two dozen poems of Die Winterreise, the cycle set to music by Franz Schubert:

By the fountain, near the gate,
There stands a linden tree;
I have dreamt in its shadows
so many sweet dreams.
I carved on its bark
so many loving words;
I was always drawn to it,
whether in joy or in sorrow.

Today again I had to pass it
in the dead of night.
And even in the darkness
I had to close my eyes.
Its branches rustled
as if calling to me:
“Come here, to me, friend,
Here you will find your peace!”
The frigid wind blew
straight in my face,
my hat flew from my head,
I did not turn back.

Now I am many hours
away from that spot
and still I hear the rustling:
“There you would have found peace!”

On YouTube I found this remarkable video footage of Mikis Theodorakis singing der Lindenbaum before a vast audience in the Alexanderplatz in East Berlin in 1987, two years before the fall of the East German communist regime.

In Poland, too, the linden is a highly revered tree, at the heart of many Polish legends. In Polish, the month of July, Lipiec, is named for the lipa, or linden tree. According to Polish legend an old Linden tree should never be cut down: to do so is certain to result in misfortune for both the axeman and his family. In Christian legend, the tree is linked with the Virgin Mary, whose image was often discerned in the dark branches of the tree. Today in Poland it’s common to see roadside shrines under a linden tree. Since the tree is believed to be favorite of the Blessed Mother, prayers offered under it are considered to have a good chance of being answered.

Leaf and flower of the lime tree

O the scent of the limes on the linden tree!
How it brings the love-days back to me,
How it wakens the mem’ries of long ago
Of summer months with their sunlit glow
And the hum of bees in pastures green
And the purling of streams that wound between,
And sequestered haunts we used to know
When we were young in the Long Ago.

Linden blossoms is a verse by the Czech poet Jeffrey Dolezal Hrbek, who left his homeland for America at the beginning of the 20th century.  The nostalgia expressed in the poem reflects the romantic significance of the linden in Czech culture.  Hrbek was appointed the first instructor for the Czech Language programme at the University of Nebraska in 1907. His stay at the university was cut short when he died at the age of 25 from typhoid that same year. Hrbek’s students raised money to posthumously publish a collection of his poems entitled, Linden Blossoms.

Linden or Lime – after all this I’m still left puzzled as to how neither the name nor the tree is related to the citrus fruit called lime.

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26 thoughts on “The intoxicating scent of lime trees

  1. That is really interesting – about time we had some proper good stuff on FB instead of usual dross.
    Love to you and Rita.
    xxx

  2. I have not heard of this tree being held sacred in medival Britain – what is the source for this please? In the Baltic this is the tree of the sun goddess Saule.

  3. Ric, you are right to question this. Referring back to my sources, I realise that I misread a passage on the tree in Germanic mythology, somehow erroneously transposing it to Britain. I’ve corrected the passage above to ensure that other readers aren’t misled before they get to the comments!

  4. From Francine Palant via Facebook:
    Great stuff, I love the scent of lime trees! by the way they are called Tilleuls in French as is the drink that is made with the dried flowers. it is a common “tisane” (herbal tea) along with camomille, you are supposed to drink it before going to bed for a restful night.

  5. Thank you Gerry, I am not criticising your article I am generally interested in the subject: “in Britain, villagers would assemble to celebrate and dance under a tilia tree, and to hold their judicial thing meetings” What is the source for this please. There are two distinct socio-cultural activities being described here, 1) dancing and celebrating and 2) judicial proceedings. I have never found that much for the lime in Britain under the category of folklore compared to Continental Europe. This tree seems to have undergone a dramatic decline in British prehistory which possibly explains its comparatively limited lore within the UK?

  6. Thanks for such an enlightening account. The lime trees were early here in London this year so this is a reminder already. I always mean to do a scent map to guide me on next year’s walks.

  7. To recap: “in Britain, villagers would assemble to celebrate and dance under a tilia tree, and to hold their judicial thing meetings”

    What is the source for this please?

    There are two distinct socio-cultural activities being described here:

    1) dancing and celebrating and

    2) judicial proceedings.

    Can you kindly let me know where this information was drawn from? There is so much material bobbing about in cyberspace which calls itself ‘factual reference’ and is in fact completely unsubstantiated and ultimately pure nonsense. I am sure ‘That’s How The Light Gets In’ will not fall into that unhallowed category.

    Many thanks,

    Ric

  8. Ric, I already answered this in my first response to you above: there is no source because I misread/misremembered this passage from Wikipedia’s entry on Tilia:
    “Germanic mythology
    The Tilia was also a highly symbolic and hallowed tree to the Germanic peoples in their native pre-Christian Germanic mythology.
    Originally, local communities assembled not only to celebrate and dance under a Tilia tree, but to hold their judicial thing meetings there in order to restore justice and peace. It was believed that the tree would help unearth the truth. Thus the tree became associated with jurisprudence even after Christianization, such as in the case of the Gerichtslinde, and verdicts in rural Germany were frequently returned sub tilia (under the Tilia) until the Age of Enlightenment. “

    • Hi Gerry..this is a very late comment ( 2 years late ) I woke this morning at 5 thinking about Linden trees…where are they and why do I never find any reference to them?..anyway I had to get up and google this as it was bugging me. I clicked on your link and found that the Linden tree was in fact the Lime and I had never realised this, in fact I was stood under a huge Lime tree the previous day fascinated by the bees. I much prefer the name Linden by the way. It was all interesting and really enjoyed the read, also when I looked at your other entries I was delighted to find loads of bits and pieces about people, causes,poets etc. which are close to my heart. I have been a great fan of Thea for years and seen her many times so was interested in hearing your comments..well I suppose she has to live. Really enjoyed reading your posts, thank you..from Pandora Picken.

      • Thanks, Pandora. I’m pleased that you have enjoyed reading things I’ve written here. Thanks for taking the time to write.

  9. I always thought that the Linden Tree was associated with Sweden. After researching it, I am surprised to learn that the poem and music were originated in Germany. Additionally, I have seen no reference linking it to Sweden. Please enlighten me. Thanks!

  10. Judie – a quick search on Google reveals that ‘the linden tree is very popular in Sweden and has given rise to names like – Lind, Lindahl, Lindbeck, Lindberg, Lindberger, Lindblad, Lindblom.. (etc) [http://www.genealogi.se/namneng.htm]. One example is that of the naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, whose name derives ‘from archaic Swedish linn, meaning linden tree. In Sweden an ancient tree on the family property would be singled out as the “warden tree,” which in Norse tradition was a tree that exerted a protective power over the family home. In the case of their family, the warden tree was a linden. The family farm was known as Linnagård’ [http://www.macroevolution.net/linnaeus.html#.UggBF3_hxrY].
    Hjälmseryd is home to Sweden’s largest linden tree – with a circumference of a full nine metres. The tree still stands after 500 years, despite suffering a lightning strike a few years ago. [http://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&ved=0CDEQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.nassjo.se%2Fcontent%2Fdownload%2F53326%2F289708%2Ffile%2F2013Tomtabacken_Vikskvarn_Hj%25C3%25A4lmseryd_engelska_print.pdf&ei=bwQIUtT0IZDn7AbIqIH4CA&usg=AFQjCNGE8JJFYJC08nx0dh8hK6C3caVnoA&sig2=pCnd8p11Qp34jNcHn9DoNw]

    A document, ‘Sacred Trees of Norway and Sweden’ [http://norwegianjournaloffriluftsliv.com/doc/192010.pdf] quotes a Swedish poem by Gunnar Arnborg:

    Through the linden archways of glittering sun, falls rain
    for life of young and old.
    We shall seek our hold in hearth and home
    and for serenity gather strength.
    The travelled roads are far from our wish
    our linden-lined path beckons to safer land.
    By shore of lake and wood, by verdant fields of harvest
    we build our linden-rooted ark of peace.

    And finally … a childrens book, ‘My Nightingale is Singing’ by Astrid Lindgren (who wrote the Pippi Longstocking books) tells of a girl whose parents have died and who is forced to live in the poor house, where nothing is fun or beautiful. She can hardly stand it, until she hears the words: ‘My linden plays, my nightingale is singing…’

  11. Dear Gerry, Thank you for this lovely article. As a child I was fascinated by the name Linden for Lime Trees which I read about in a very old encyclopaedia belonging to my grandparents. Many years later, when I moved in to my 500 year old house over three years ago, there was a tree in the garden which I loved. I loved the way it moved and its sound. In recent months I have become interested in the decline of honey bees in the UK and have also become more interested in gardening. Upon research I decided I would like to have a Linden Tree which not only appeased the child of yesteryear but was also great for the honey bees. I was explaining this to my soon to be in-laws whilst they were visiting us at the weekend whilst we were walking round the garden. Moments later we passed the tree in the garden that I love and I wondered aloud what type of tree it was. Friends of theirs who were also visiting and who have a wider than average knowledge on trees, were called upon to answer the question. And yes, you’ve guessed it, “That’s a Lime.” they said. I am over the moon that I own a Linden tree and have loved it for over three years without even knowing what it was. I completely identify with all the poetry written about Linden trees. They do offer peace, love, truth, clarity and romance and I will be wishing under the Linden next summer when we hold our wedding reception in our garden.

  12. Your article on lime trees is fascinating. I’ve learnt a lot. I came searching for the sense of “l’odeur faible et énervante” of lime trees which I read about in a French story. Not knowing lime trees, other than the citrus kind, I’m trying to imagine a scent that’s énervante, and looking for the right English word to translate it. Thanks for writing this.

    • Thanks, Trish. I’m pleased that you found what I’d written (cobbled together from various sources) useful. I liked your recent post about dark skies, dark swans and dark sculptures.

  13. Hello
    Thankyou for taking the time to post this research. I was drawn to your site after reading the book The Bees by Laline Paull. In it the drone that gets the Queen is called Sir Linden. This morning a woke if an urge to investigate Linden. Reading through the articale and comments I found so many questions answered – many that I had not before connected together.

    Blessings x

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