Berlin motorists are a nervous lot at the best of times, but in late June the mood tips into paranoia. When they get out of their parked car, you’ll often see a questioning, sceptical glance upwards: “Am I parked beneath a linden tree?”
If so, they know what awaits them in the morning: a sticky mess of nectar and blossoms that only a car wash owner could love.
This is linden blossom season in Germany and nowhere is the smell more intoxicating than in the capital. The linden is the quintessential Berliner and one in three of the city’s 430,000 trees is a linden variety. For a few short weeks, the warm evening air is heavy with the intoxicating “Berlinden” fragrance of lemon, honey, butter and musk.
The capital loves the tree so much that the main boulevard in the city centre, leading to the Brandenburg Gate, is named after the trees that line the route: Unter den Linden, under the linden trees.
Wolfgang von Goethe writes longingly of long-ago open-air dances beneath the 'Tanzlinde' or 'dancing linden'
What makes the linden so special, apart from its irresistible perfume, is its longevity. In a country that is no stranger to war and destruction, where buildings come and go and even old graveyards are rare, the linden tree is a rare witness to the past.
Among the Germanic peoples, the linden was considered a holy tree and the site of parliamentary and court gatherings. Many believe the linden was linked to Freya, the Nordic goddess of love, sex and fertility.
Get off the beaten track around Germany and you’ll often find an old linden at the heart of a town. They were planted by locals in thanks for the end of a war or the passing of a plague and, even today, offer an ideal spot for birthday parties and summer gatherings.
Just like its perfume, Germans’ love for their linden trees is difficult to put into words, though many have tried. German national poet Wolfgang von Goethe writes longingly of long-ago open-air dances beneath the “Tanzlinde” or “dancing linden”.
The best-known linden love letter is Wilhelm Müller’s poem, set to music by Franz Schubert in his Winterreise song cycle, where the linden becomes a vessel for happiness, love and loss: “By the well, before the gate, stands a linden tree/in its shade I dreamt many a sweet dream.”
Some 850 place names in Germany can be linked directly to the linden tree. Of the many ancient linden, the oldest is said to be in the village of Heede, between the Dutch border and the northern port city of Bremen. Locals say it is between 600 and 800 years old, meaning it was planted somewhere between the Crusades and the Columbus voyage to the new world.
Given its symbolic and emotional power, it’s no surprise that the linden tree – along with the oak – was co-opted by the Nazis in their effort to root their fascist ideology in German tradition.
City authorities have urged residents to adopt a local tree and water it regularly
The musical Cabaret contains a nod to that tradition in the song Tomorrow Belongs to Me, exposing the creeping horror of Nazism in a pseudo folk song that extols how “the branch of the linden is leafy and green . . .”
Months after Hitler took power in 1933, Hermann Göring ordered all German cities, towns and villages to ensure they had an Adolf-Hitler-Strasse. Many eager-to-please mayors went the extra mile and planted an oak or linden tree in honour of the Nazi dictator.
Unlike much of the folk tradition co-opted by the Nazis, and still tainted as a result, the linden survived the fascists unscathed – and even the subsequent Cold War. In Berlin, many locals still associate the tree with freedom: the “Dreilinden” or “three linden” border crossing was, for West Berliners, the sign that they had made it home again safely.
As Berlin is gripped by a summer heatwave, and temperatures creep up near 40 degrees, city authorities have urged residents to adopt a local tree and water it regularly. While other varieties are struggling with drought, beetles and moths, a recent city survey found the linden trees to be in rude health.
Like the German capital, the linden is a great survivor.