Limes (or Linden or Pry) make some of the most beautiful of our landscape trees. They were once thought to be a relatively minor component of our prehistoric woodlands due to the relatively low proportion of Lime pollen found in pollen analysis studies. But, being pollinated by bees, they shed far less pollen than wind pollinated species and, factoring this in, we now know that it was the most common tree of lowland England, from the south coast north to the Lake District and the Tyne - with the exception of Cornwall which was predominantly Oak and Hazel - but then some consider Cornwall separate from England anyway. (While on the subject of bee pollination, there has long been concern that Lime is toxic to bees - more below under Silver Limes).
Large areas of Lime were cleared by Neolithic and Bronze Age man for conversion to farm land. This was an immense achievement given the tenacity of the species and its ability to re-sprout. The largest remaining Lime wood is Shrawley Wood in Worcestershire (340 acres) and this and another - Lynwode Wood in Lincolnshire - fell into the hands of the unreformed Forestry Commission who immediately set about doing their usual thing, which was clearing the native trees to plant exotic conifers. The trees were felled and poison applied - Ecologist George Peterken described the air as being 'acrid with herbicide' - but Agent Orange had met it's match and the Limes stools gradually recovered 'over-topping the drought bitten Norway Spruce'. 20th Century Forestry Commission had thrown all it's science at the Limes and failed to achieve what our ancestors had managed with hand tools.
We know that Limes woods were still common as late as Anglo-Saxon times partly from its frequency in place names. Lyndhurst and Linwood in the New Forest near us derive from 'Linde', the Anglo-Saxon for Lime. There is also good documentation from the use of coppice poles and from 'bast' - a fibre made from the inner bark and spun into ropes and mats - giving rise to more place names such as Bastwick in Norfolk.
Grazing by deer, goats and sheep has been suggested as another reason for the loss of Lime woods. Oliver Rackham describes it as 'relatively unattractive' to deer, but also notes their absence from the New Forest, Epping Forest and the Forest of Dean (a Forest with a capital 'F' is - or was - a royal deer hunting park). Furthermore, in areas of Oak and Beech such as in South Wales and the Avon Gorge, Limes can be found on inaccessible cliffs - suggesting a sensitivity to grazing.
Climate change, conversion to farmland and grazing have probably all contributed to the decline of Lime woods, but the extent of loss remains something of a mystery.
Naturally occurring Common Lime is not at all common and tends to differ slightly from the variety that has been so ubiquitously planted in streets, parks, avenues and churchyards throughout Britain - earning it the 'Common' name. This variety is almost certainly from stock imported from the continent in the mid-seventeenth century. It has a propensity to form suckering shoots at the base and it was learned at an early date that when the tree was felled and the shoots were pegged down, new plants were produced easily and cheaply. However, removal of suckers has also proved to be an onerous maintenance task for municipal authorities where this feature was undesirable.
There has been concern that the nectar from Lime trees is toxic to bees, none more so than Silver Lime and Silver Pendent Lime, beneath which large large numbers of 'drunk' and dead bees have been found. The fear was reinforced by the fact that a tea, tilleul, has long been made from an infusion of the flowers and used to aid sleep - even being recommended as a mild sedative during the war - suggesting narcotic properties. Tea made from the Silver Limes was thought particularly effective. This has led to calls for trees to be removed - or at least not be planted in certain locations. However, research has shown that the phenomenon is a result of bee behaviour rather than toxic nectar. It is bumblebees rather than honey bees that are affected, and the workers only live for a few weeks. Silver Limes flower later than others and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust currently advise: 'There has been a lot of research into the reason why and the current evidence points to the behaviour of bumblebees, and not toxic nectar. For some reason, bumblebees keep feeding upon the flowers, even when nectar runs low. So on hot days, and close to the end of the flowering period, the bumblebees keep feeding, run out of energy, and die. Honeybees, however, seem to realise that there is no nectar left, and will feed upon other flowers instead'.
This blog largely produced from works of Oliver Rackham, Richard Mabey and W J Bean.
More Limes to follow...we would love to include your photographs of Lime species too - please send them to us!