In search of a lime tree in the Boatman's Call (Plant Portrait VIII*)

In his song Lime Tree Arbour, the arbour is where Australian musician Nick Cave puts his hand over hers, and hers over his. Perhaps literally or perhaps metaphorically. Usually with Nick Cave songs there is death and humour lurking nearby. In this case it may be a drowning (a boatman is mentioned elsewhere in the song), and as for the laughs, they aren't so obvious in this ballad.

The lime trees in this song not Citrus but Tilia, the stately tree of country homes in England and many parks around the world. Lime is a corruption of an earlier name for the tree, as is its other common name, the Linden.

The first substantial lime trees I noticed were in Kew Gardens, much favoured by the head of the arboretum Tony Kirkham, particularly when emitting perfume on a summer's evening. They grow in Melbourne too, although less well in Sydney, and I have enjoyed passing by a couple alongside the Ornamental Lake in Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens since my return just over a year ago.

But it's in the UK and Europe (and elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere) they excel. I remember a Lime Tree avenue in Berlin, or perhaps we could call it an arbour although that conjures up more formality achieved through training and torturing of the trees. Unter den Linden ('Under the Lime Trees') is in the Mitte district, on what was the East German side not so long ago, and I like to think Cave, who lived and performed in Berlin for many years, drew some inspiration from this road-side planting. Although an ancient boulevard, with the first Limes planted in the mid seventeenth century, those there today are only fifty years old.

Back at Kew, many of the 30 species of Tilia are grown. I've chosen to use the Weeping Lime, Tilia tomentosa 'Petiolaris' (or sometimes simply Tilia 'Peteriolaris' given the uncertainly of its origins) to illustrate this post (other than the two pictures from Berlin). This cultivar has been grown in the UK for nearly 250 years and like its putative parent, Tilia tomentosa, the Silver Lime, its silver-backed leaves flicker beautifully in a breeze.

I was reminded of these Lime Trees, and Nick Cave's song, as I embarked on a long read, Proust's In Search of Lost Time. It's very early days. I'm in the first book, Swann's Way, remembering daffodils, buttercups and water-lilies beside and in the Vivonne. A little way past the famous Madeleine incident, the one that triggers the narrator's first memory. The small, shell-like cake is dunked, by his Aunt, into an infusion of lime blossom, the flowers of Tilia.

The nectar of Tilia flowers has some slightly narcotic chemicals in it, enough to kill bees and to sedate humans. Proust, or Proust's narrator, could well have been channeling memories and other hallucinations through the direct influence of the volatiles rather than that the more indirect effects of a previously dunked cake. But then that would spoil the book, and my own very keen sense of food, drink, music, smells and so on conjuring up things past.

Nick Cave says the wind in the [Lime] trees is a-whispering. That I can definitely recall, both the wind and hearing this song for the first time in 1997, on the album The Boatman's Call. It wasn't and isn't my favourite Nick Cave album but that doesn't stop the memories (or this still being a bloody good collection of songs).

*Occasional posts are called Plant Portraits (in brackets after the blog title and marked with an asterisk). These are usually about things other than, but including at least passing reference to, plants. Often they will be inspired by a book or something else in my cultural life. The idea is borrowed (very loosely and with due deference) from Milan Kundera's 'Novels, Existential Soundings', in his Encounters. These essays were as much, or more, about things other than the book being reviewed.