The lime tree (Tilia platyphyllos)
Dear Readers, when I used to visit Mum and Dad in Milborne St Andrew in Dorset I would always make a special pilgrimage to see this extraordinary lime tree. Horses and sheep used to gather in its shade, and you could smell its distinctive creamy/fruity scent, and hear the sound of the drowsy bees gathering its nectar, from fifty feet away. Alas, when I visited back in November the tree had disappeared, blown down during the autumn storms. So this post is by way of a memorial, and a celebration. Lime trees can reach a good age (the oldest are thought to be about 2000 years old), which makes the demise of this one even sadder.
There are two species of lime tree native to the UK – the large-leaved lime, as seen in the photos, and the small-leaved lime (Tilia cordata). The hybrid between the two, Tilia x europaea, is the original street tree, predating the now ubiquitous London Plane. The tree has absolutely nothing to do with the citrus lime, and the name is thought to be a corruption of the Old English word Lind. Known as the Linden in the rest of Europe, the tree used to line the avenues of many cities (Unter den Linden in Berlin for one). Alas, the tree also attracts aphids who emit torrents of honeydew, much to the disgust of the motorists who park underneath them. Plus, limes are relatively high-maintenance, requiring regular pruning to keep them in shape. Finally, with increased levels of pollution it was clear that the London Plane was more able to survive the rigours of smog and nitrous oxides. These days, there are still lime avenues in London, but they tend to be in the older, quieter parts of town, such as the Whitehall Estate in North London.
Lime trees on Gladsmuir Road
The wood of lime trees is soft and easy to work, with a fine grain and was a favourite of the sculptor Grinling Gibbons (1648 – 1721), who worked on pieces for Hampton Court, St Pauls Cathedral and Petworth House amongst other sites. It’s said that Gibbons often carved a closed peapod in his work, and that he would only carve it ‘open’ once he’d been paid. So, if you come across a Gibbons sculpture with a closed peapod, the poor man probably wasn’t paid for his labours.
Grinling Gibbons – detail from Hampton Court (Photo One)
In addition to its rich nectar, the lime tree provides plenty of food for caterpillars, the most spectacular of which is probably the lime hawk moth (Mimias tilae). This extraordinary moth can be found in a variety of colour morphs, from this rather green and pink individual through to moths striped in caramel and cream.
Lime Hawk-Moth (Mimas tilae) (Photo Two)
The caterpillars start out green, but turn brown when they’re fully fed. I especially like the blue and red spike at the back.
Lime Hawk-Moth caterpillar (Photo Three)
Lime trees are also prone to these rather fetching galls, known as nail galls and caused by the gall mite Eriophyes tilae. Galls are extraordinary because the invertebrates ‘persuade’ the plant to create these structures themselves. Nail galls act as protection for the young mites, and when they’re ready to leave they exit through tiny holes on the underside of the leaf, to wait in crevices in the bark for the following spring.
As regular readers will know, I’m also currently getting stuck into a variety of herbal teas, and I’m very intrigued by the idea of lime blossom. And linden honey sounds rather splendid too. What’s your experience, readers?
Lime flower tea (Photo Four)
And finally, here is a poem, which takes us full-circle back to the Unter den Linden, and to the power of taste and smell to evoke memory. The poet, Caroline Smith, wasn’t known to me before, but this is wonderful. I shall be keeping an eye open for more work by her.
Lime Tree Honey by Caroline Smith
The regulation for citizenship demands proof that
an applicant was in the UK exactly five years before
the date of application.
All she had brought with her
from that other life in the DDR
was a dill pickle jar filled with honey
made by his bees, from trees
in the Unter den Linden.
It would remain unopened,
a jar of time that could not change
but that preserved one day in their life together
as she had decided to remember it.
The honey held the burnished light
of an early morning leaving East Berlin
to take the swarm to the countryside
to pollinate an orchard.
It held the cobbled roads of the hamlets
they had meandered through:
the scent of flowering beans
through the open windows,
stalks of chaff that blew round the car,
the back of the old hatchback
bumping and scraping low behind them
with the packed hives, shifting –
and the restless hum of the bees.
In the shock that had enveloped her
after the release of her file
and the discovery of her husband’s
meticulous notes on her life,
she had searched back
as she prepared to leave Germany
for signs of his affection –
some drop of sweetness
she could extract from those years.
Photo One by By Camster2 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6521009
Photo Two by Patrick Clement from West Midlands, England, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Three by https://c40.ent.box.com/file/692228531096
Photo Four by Marco Verch Professional at https://www.flickr.com/photos/30478819@N08/49162296282