Posted by: Ross Gardner | July 13, 2012

Let’s hear it for the Lime

Common Lime (Tilia x europaea) flowers. Copyright 2012 Ross Gardner

The lime is a tree that is not often talked about.  It is the oak that is sturdy, the birch that is graceful, the cherry one of the more likely to draw the gaze flushed with spring blossom and the maple doing the same with stunning autumn tones.  But lime?  The lime is… well, the lime.

Yet here is a tree that was once the dominant species  over much of southern Britain when the ansectral forest – the wildwood – covered much of lowlands 7000 years ago.  Native lime woodland, containing the Small-leafed Lime (Tilia cordata), is now scarce and may be an indication of the considerable antiquity of a wood.  But this is a tree that many of us will pass beneath more fruequently than we might realise, for it is a popular street tree in the UK.  This may be in the shape of the Large-leafed Lime (Tilia platyphyllos), which probably also is a native tree to parts of western and northern England, or very often the Common Lime (Tilia x europaea) – a hybrid of these other two species.  Well past are the days when the old lime woods might have provided essential materials for the day to day existence of people and communities, but in this way at least, they still remain entwined, albeit often unnoticed, in the lives of a great many people.

The lime is a useful wildlife tree, with more than 80 species of invertebrate known to associated with it.  Many of these are moths; from the giant-sized Lime Hawk-moth to those tiny species whose caterpillar mine the insides of the leaves.  There are, of course,  many others in between, such as the unfortunately named Clouded Drab (Orthosia incerta)and the cold-hardy Winter Moth (Operophtera brumata).

Clouded Drab (Orthosis incerta) – one of many moths known to lay their eggs on lime. Copyright 2012 Ross Gardner.

But what has prompted this train of thought on the lime tree?  It is the smell of the flowers that just lately I have been encountering, wafting through the air to greet me usually before I have noticed the trees themselves.  The flowers themselves are not what one would regard as spectacular, but they appear in profusion and do make for a pleasing sight.  They are doted on by nectar feeders and may be seen well tended by bees and flies of all kinds.  But the smell!  To my nose there are few other flowers to match it and fewer to better it.  It is a sweet aroma, but not sickly so.  It is……… very difficult to describe.  Best you find one in flower and smell it.

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