The Linden tree in Germany – The Tree at the Heart of Germany
A friend sent me a clip from a news story out of West Virginia about the removal of a Linden Tree. What made him curious was not the toys found under the tree… it was the tree itself. This special tree was the last survivor of three Linden trees brought to the United States by German immigrants. Why, he asked, would Germans bring Linden trees with them? Ahhh… because the Linden tree in Germany is not just a tree, it’s a symbol of many things. It’s the tree dedicated to Freya in pagan Germanic mythology, it’s the tree of justice and dance, and you’ll often find a Linden tree in the center of towns because it represents the heart of the community. Linden trees are the subject of poems and songs, and it was a leaf from the Linden tree brought down Siegfried. It’s useful in medicine, in woodworking, and to keep cool. To me, it makes perfect sense that 115 years ago a German immigrant would plant a Linden tree in the center of his new hometown. He brought a piece of Germany with him.
The Linden Tree in Germany
The Linden Tree in Germany, the Linde, comes from the genus Tilia. (In England they are known as Lime trees, and in America, you might hear them referred to as Basswood). These beautiful trees grow 20 to 40 meters tall with symmetrical branches and bright green heart shaped leaves. Linden trees are especially long lived, most living a few hundred years, but a few are thought to be over 1000 years old! The fragrant yellow blossoms draw bees in June, and those bees make the most delicious honey. (But make the worst mess on your car if you park under them). And the deciduous trees cast cool shade all summer long.
Every part of the Linde is useful. Linden flowers contain flavonoids, and the tasty tea made from Linden flowers is used for colds, coughs, and fevers, and Linden leaves are said to be calming. Both leaves and flowers increase sweating, and act as an expectorant. (Sources from the Middle Ages claim that you can cure epilepsy by sitting in the shade of a Linden tree, but I’d check with your 21st century doctor first.) The wood can be used to treat the liver and gallbladder, and turned to charcoal to treat internal diseases. Even the inner bark of the tree is useful… it can be stripped and twisted to use a rope.
Because it was strong, but lightweight, German tribes used the wood to make shields. Still, most often you will see Linden wood used in carving. It’s a fine grained and smooth wood, perfect for carving statues of saints and altarpieces. My favorite though are the little trees, Spanbaumen, made from carefully hand-shaved linden wood. Each layer goes a the same size all the way around, each level getting gradually larger.
Linden Tree Symbolism
According to pre-Christian Germanic Myth, Linden trees in Germany are sacred. This “tree of fertility” and gentle motherliness was associated with the goddess of love, Freya, because of the heart shaped leaves. Standing under a Linden tree would protect you from being struck by lightning, since Freya was the wife of Odin/Wotan. Linden trees protect against bad luck. They also repel bad spirits.
The Teutons, a northern Germanic tribe from the 4th century BC to the 2nd century AD, held all court hearings under a Linden tree “unter Linden“. They believed that Freya would bring the truth out, and that the sweet scent of the blossoms would encourage the judges to give milder sentences. This custom continued under the Holy Roman Empire, courts and judicial meetings were held under the Gerichtslinde, (Sub Tilia meaning Under the Linden), a Linden tree outside of town.
The Gerichtslinde should not be mistaken for the Tanzlinde (Dance Linde), which would be found in the center of the village. This tree was the gathering place for celebrations and festivals. Dancers swirled around it while musicians sat on platforms high in the branches. A few Tanzlinde still exist in Franconia. The tree in Limmersdorf has been used for dancing since 1686, and the Tanzlinde in Peesten may be relatively new (1946), but the original use goes back to the 16th century.
Public Domaine -Voss, Georg (Hrsg.): Großherzogthum Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach. Amtsgerichtsbezirk Eisenach. In: Lehfeldt, Paul/Voss, Georg (Hrsg.): Bau- und Kunst-Denkmäler Thüringens. Heft XL. Jena 1915 S.193
Unter den Linden
Linden trees turn up on in city names, on coat of arms, and in the center of many German towns and villages you’ll find a Linden tree. The name Leipzig comes from the Sorbian word for Linden. Linden trees were frequently planted near churches and over cemeteries, because the sweet blossoms might cover the scent of death.
The oldest one is most likely the Schenklengsfeld Lindenbaum in Hesse….almost the geographical center of Germany. Locals claim the tree is well over 1000 years old, and is the oldest tree in Germany! And it’s huge… the branches spanning 25 meters in diameter. Once upon a time, it was a judicial Linden, and for a while a pillory linden (to met out the justice). In the 19th century it became a Tanzlinden, and the community still comes together to dance under its branches every two years during the Lindenblütenfest (Linden Blossom Festival).
The leafy green Promenade around Münster encircles the city with hundreds of Winter Linden trees (Tilia Cordata). In fact, Münster is the only German city surrounded by a circle of Linden trees. The path follows the foundation of the old city walls which was pulled down in 1764 to free the area for the local population. Today, you can walk or cycle in the shade all the way around the inner city without worrying about cars (there are underpasses where roads come in). Weekends the promenade fills with thousands of people strolling and cycling, and during the week, cyclists use it to quickly get across town. (Note, path has 2 parts, one for feet, one for wheels!)
But naturally, you find the most famous Linden trees, are found along Unter den Linden in Berlin. Originally a bridal path from the 1500’s, the trail allowed John George of Brandenburg to get to his hunting grounds in the Tiergarten. The first trees were planted on the avenue in 1647. Frederick the Great wanted a grand boulevard befitting the growing cosmopolitan city. The current boulevard runs from the City Palace to the Brandenburg Gate. Along the way you’ll find Humboldt University, the Adlon Hotel, the State Opera, and naturally, a Statue of Frederick the Great himself. Most of the original Linden trees were torn out or cut down over the years…some for an S-Bahn expansion, others for firewood in WWII. In the 1950s, efforts were made to replace the trees, and now the avenue is as lovely as ever.
Even before, it was so lovely, Johann Strauss composed an Opera for it…
Linden Trees in Legend and Literature
It’s not just an Opera… Linden Trees appear over and over in music and German Literature, from epic poems to more modern classics. They symbolize home and comfort, happy memories…and in the case of Siegfried, vulnerability. There is even a sweet children’s book about Linden Trees and their heart shaped leaves!
Unter den Linden
I imagine this Minnesang (epic love poem) by Walther von der Vogelweide was sung in courts across Germany.
“Under der linden
an der heide,
dâ unser zweier bette was,
dâ muget ir vinden
gebrochen bluomen unde gras.
vor dem walde in einem tal,
schône sanc diu nahtegal.”
Siegfried, Dragon’s Blood and a Linden Leaf
Legends of Siegfried the Dragonslayer date back to early Germanic and Nordic sagas. But it’s the Nibelungenlied that most of us might be familiar with. Originally written in the 13th century, it was re-discovered by Richard Wagner, who composed the 4 part EPIC Ring Cycle based on the stories.
Back to Siegfried… At Drachenfels along the Rhine, Siegfried slays the enchanted dragon with a sword forged from pieces of his father’s blade. Because he’s heard that dragon blood grants invulnerability, he bathed in it. But, like Achilles, he didn’t manage to get completely coated. Siegfried failed to notice the Linden leaf stuck to his back. This mistake proves deadly, when Hagen kills him with a spear through his back.
Franz Schubert “Der Lindenbaum”
Before his early death, Franz Schubert composed “Winterreise” (Winter’s Journey). The 24 pieces work together to tell the story of a lonely traveler trying to forget a lost love. The words were written by poet Wilhelm Müller. The fifth song, “Der Lindenbaum” is a memory of the security the young man felt under the tree.
“At the fountain in front of the gate, there is a Linden Tree. I dream in its shadow, many a sweet dream”
In Hesse’s 1912 “Die Drei Linden” (“The Three Linden Trees“… a short story in his book of Fairy Tales, a young man, the youngest of three brothers, comes across the body of the Blacksmith’s apprentice. Because he can’t decide whether he should run and hide or report the body, the local police arrest him for murder. THe middle brother is so distraught about the arrest that he confesses to the murder. Their older brother then does the same. The local judge doesn’t think any are guilty, and wants to leave the decision to God. The brothers are instructed to plant Linden Trees… the one that doesn’t live would be considered guilty. All three trees thrive, and grow so large that their branches entwine and cover the whole cemetery for the Hospital of the Holy Spirit in Berlin.
Story of Saint Edigna
Linden trees even find their way into the Catholic Church. Edigna, the daughter of the French King swore a vow of eternal chastity. But her father promised her hand in marriage. She fled to Germany, and after receiving a sign from God, she chose to live in a hollow Linden tree. For years she lived in the tree 35 years as a hermit, helping the poor and teaching them to pray. When she died in 1109, her Linden Tree home oozed a healing oil that stopped working when it people tried to profit from its sale.
Wiesenthal, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons
Edigna’s linden tree, one of the 10 oldest in Germany, still stands in the cemetery next to the St Sebastian Church in Puch, about 25 kilometers west of Munich near Fürstenfeldbruck. It’s said that cleaning milk containers with leaves picked from this special tree after midnight will encourage the milk to make twice as much cream the next time they are used. The large, gnarled, and bumpy looking Linden tree brings the story full circle. The church fought against Germanic Paganism for years, hoping people would forget the ways of the Teutons who held the Linden tree in such a central place in their lives. Yet St. Edigna’s Linden tree is nearly as important as St Edigna herself.
The Linden in Germany is a beautiful tree, providing shade, and sweet smells from the blossoms in summertime. You find them all over Germany and much of Europe, but they are also native to New England, and will grow in many climates. You can plant your own Linden tree, just check with your local garden center. The tree is large, so make sure to have space. Plant in moist soil that drains. And remember, a Linden tree lives for hundreds of years… if you plant one today, your great-great grandchildren will appreciate sitting under your Linden, a symbol of love, many years in the future.
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