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Sweet Smell of Memory

Linden trees on Constitution Av and 7th St on June 5, 2009 on a rainy morning 

This is the season for the smell of linden. It is a pleasant but elusive fragrance. The strange thing is that if you get really close to the blooms, you cannot smell them.  The fragrance overwhelms the senses in such concentrations.  That means that you can only catch a whiff on the breeze. It is a very Central European smell.   I remember it from my first visit to Germany.   The lindens are so prominent and pungent in Poland that they named their seventh month (our July) lipiec, which comes from their name for linden. 

In Northern Virginia we have a variety of introduced European lindens.   Fashion affects trees too and you could probably date neighborhoods by the mix of trees.  Many of the lindens we see today were planted twenty or thirty years ago.  Since then, zelkovas, pears and various kinds of cultivars I don’t even recognize have been more in style.  

The American versions of lindens are basswoods.   They are taller than their European cousins but the flowers are less conspicuous and the scent is there but a little less apparent.   Basswoods don’t grow around here naturally; at least I have never seen one.   We are just past the edge of their range.  They are more common farther north and throughout the Midwest and they are very familiar in southern Wisconsin, where they tend to team up with sugar maples and – near lake Michigan but not inland - beech trees to form climax forests any place where the soil is deep enough.

Bees are fond of basswood flowers, which bloom in June and July. There is even a specific kind of honey made from basswood nectar.

Smell is persistent in memory and the linen smell brings back so many for me.  I remember the lindens were blooming when I went to Minneapolis for my MBA in June 1983 and even today the smell brings back those memories.  I bet I could do statistics better under a linden tree. There were a couple big basswood trees on the road from Chrissy’s family farm in Holmen and that image pops back too at the smell of the lindens.   But the most interesting memory connection comes from my visit to Germany in 1979.  When I smell the lindens, sometimes I can taste the beer.   Sense memory is complex. Evidently the sense of smell is tied closely to the emotional memory in the amygdala.  I am sure somebody has done scientific studies that explain it but I don’t feel like looking it up.

Someday I will plant a garden with lindens, lilacs, marigolds, hawthorn, honeysuckle, lavender & jasmine.  Those produce the nicest smells.


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