Secret scents

by Jonathan Damery

June 27, 2018

Secret scents

Something about a linden tree (Tilia spp.) seems to wish to be secret. The leaves resemble lopsided hearts on many species and are decidedly green. No pretention, no drama, and even the most esteemed examples—I’m thinking, for instance, of the littleleaf linden (T. cordata) growing behind the Longfellow House in Cambridge, which was purportedly planted around the turn of the nineteenth century—rarely attain a stately stature, even compared to much younger oaks. Unless persistently pruned, many lindens sucker around the base, obscuring their trunks like the gauze of half-forgotten memories, and the same is true higher in the canopy, where the branches are sometimes shrouded with leafy epicormic shoots.

Tilia platyphyllos (1276-51*A) flowering along Meadow Road. Photo by Jonathan Damery.

Even when the fragrance of linden flowers thickens the air—so sticky you can almost taste the sweetness—the blossoms, not to mention the trees themselves, could easily be missed. To my nose, the aroma can be as heady as a common lilac (Syringa vulgaris), yet because the small white flowers are tucked beneath the leaves, in some cases high overhead and well out of sight, they are easily sensed but not easily seen. I have, on more than one occasion, overheard sidewalk conversations beneath a linden, where someone remarks on the astonishing aroma before turning to unsuccessfully sniff for a source in the surrounding shrubs.

At the Arboretum, the earliest of our linden species are now in full flower, with one of the most prominent examples—a bigleaf linden (Tilia platyphyllos, accession 1276-51*A)—bearing armloads of blossoms along Meadow Road. From a distance, the tree is saturated with white gold (the color of the flowers and the leafy bracts that subtend them), and for this swift season, the tree might be capable of stealing at least minor attention from the muscular cork tree (Phellodendron amurense var. lavallei, accession 7544*B) on the other side of the road. I’m also fond of our cutleaf specimen of the same species (T. platyphyllos ‘Laciniata’, accession 4966*A), which, though almost fifty years older, stands small and delicate along the new mulch path that was laid through the collection this spring. Our specimens of Korean linden (T. koreana, accession 586-90*A, B) are worth seeing, too, given the powder pink anthers of the flowers—though to see those, you should hurry, because the color fades fast.

Up close, note the pink anthers on Tilia koreana (586-90*A). Photo by Jonathan Damery.

To me, the appeal of linden flowers, especially those invisible above, is that they are so unbeholden to human admiration. They could take us or leave us, rather opting for bees. Lindens provide midsummer fodder for numerous bee species, long after the flowers on many other plants have faded. Smelling the flowers is like encountering the air of gentle wood smoke from your neighbor’s barbeque; the smell alone can be an epicurean pleasure, even while the platter of food is accumulating for others to enjoy.

The flowers are occasionally collected for tea, which bibliophiles might recall from the opening of Marcel Proust’s multi-volume In Search of Lost Time, where the narrator dips a madeleine into linden tea and is suddenly overtaken with memory of his childhood, and particularly of his aunt, who was prescribed the beverage to alleviate anxiety. “The drying of the stems had curved them into a whimsical trelliswork in whose interlacings the pale flowers opened, as if a painter had arranged them, posing them in the most ornamental way,” Proust wrote of the dried blossoms, which the boy would dump from a pharmacy bag, while warming a kettle of water. For me, the fragrance of the blossoms in and of themselves has nostalgic potency, capable of incanting summer twilights from years past—the flowers luminous and ghostly in the dreamy half-light.

The distinctive foliage of Tilia henryana (857-74*A). Photo by Jonathan Damery.

Over the coming weeks, other linden species will begin flowering in the Arboretum collection. Certainly, the daintily textured Japanese species Tilia kiusiana (accession 1019-86*B) is well worth spotting along Linden Path, as is the larger Japanese linden (T. japonica, accession 10859*A)—an Ernest Henry Wilson specimen that arrived in 1919—growing on the opposite side of the path. I’m also smitten by T. henryana (accession 857-74*A), a Chinese species on which the leaf veins extend into long bristles along the margin, creating a rather gothic affectation. But more than anything, as you wander the collection, simply follow your nose and see where it takes you.

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