Thursday, 12 April 2018

Lime Trees

Readers of these august columns will know that, from time to time, I turn my attention - and my ire - towards lime trees. Perhaps I should not do so for we have two fine native limes, the Small-leaved Lime, Tilia cordata, and the Large-leaved Lime, T. platyphyllos. The former is generally rare in Northamptonshire (although probably extremely common a few millennia ago). It is still to be found patchily in woodlands to the north-east of the county. The Large-leaved Lime is now extinct in the county - if it was ever present - and is quite a rare tree in Britain as a whole.
I confess that that the only lime which I, and millions of others, find familiar is the Common Lime, Tilia x vulgaris, which is a hybrid of our two natives. From time to time I have cracked open the little round fruits, always finding them empty. But fertile seed is produced and I occasionally find seedlings, often in flower borders not too far from the parent tree.
Throughout Britain it has been planted by municipal authorities as a street tree and in public parks. The question is, why? Throughout the winter it stands, leafless, graceless and useless.
Lime trees on 'The Brightwell',  Byfield. Note the suckering shoots
 at the base of the trunk. 11 April, 2018
In the early summer it has attractive foliage of a delicate green - lime green - to be followed a little later by the flowers. These are generally described as fragrant although in some years I find the fragrance to be minimal or absent. The downside of lime trees, and something about which I have whinged before, is the rain of honeydew from the leaves in high summer. These droplets are the work of an aphid, Eucallipterus tiliae, and not only will these excreted droplets fall on any cars parked below but the sugary liquid is found on the leaves, encouraging the development of a disfiguring sooty mould.(Oddly enough the leaves have occasionally been used as sandwich fillings and the aphid secretions make them 'like honey-coated lettuce leaves'.) [Ref. 1] In the autumn the fallen leaves of lime trees seem to form, when wet, a particularly messy sludge in gutters and on footpaths.
But the biggest problem, I feel, concerns the suckers that sprout around the base of the tree. In Byfield yesterday an attempt was being made to remove these unsightly growths.
Clearing the suckers is a regular, and doubtless tedious, job.
Byfield, 11 April, 2018
The person tasked with the job will probably spend most of the day in the area - and then perhaps go on to repeat the operation on hundreds of trees elsewhere. The operation leaves an unsightly mass of sawn-off little stumps and, of course, the whole business will need to be repeated year after year, a huge waste of time and money.
The result is not always neat and tidy.
Are there compensations? I have mentioned the delicate spring foliage and the fragrant flowers. The Lime Hawk-moth, Mimas tiliae, feeds on the foliage and there is also, in most years, a good crop of nectar with subsequent delicious honey. But there so many options: alders, planes and birches seem good choices and I have seem Ginkgo, Ginkgo biloba, occasionally used. Around the car park of our local Tesco supermarket several Tulip Trees, Liriodendron tulipifera, have been planted. We may have to exercise a little patience before they flower, but what a wonderful idea!


1. Quoted in Richard Mabey's book, Flora Britannica. Chatto and Windus (1996)

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