The Scent of Summer

The word for July in Lithuanian is “liepa” which means linden. This tree begins to blossom at the end of June. Its blossoming rolls through the countryside toward the sea over the month of July, says ethnologist Libertas Klimka. 

There are over ten types of linden trees growing in Lithuania, but only one is native. It is the first to bloom, and is called the little-leaf linden (Tilia cordata). Its blossoms last for two weeks, then the other, imported lindens begin to bloom in parks, squares and streetsides. These are the broadleaf, American, silver, and other varieties. It is the reason this month is called “liepa”, the only one named for a tree. Originally, the month was called “haycutting” (“šienpjūtis”, or “šienavimas”), in keeping with the timeline of farm work. In fact it was also called “kirmėlis” or “kirmitis”, or worm, according to natural phenomena, with many plants and bushes being attacked by all types of leaf-cutters in July.

July is the summertime’s fullness, most appropriate for vacationing, because nature isn’t yet fatigued by the sun, and days are still long. In Lithuania, the days shorten to 16 hours over this month, and the average sunshine reaches a total of 272 hours, only four hours less than in June. The temperature is generally 16-18 degrees C, and it is the only month when there is no fear of frost, although there is a fair amount of rain – about 100 mm.

Since ancient times Lithuanians have loved planting lindens on their homesteads, or at the roadside (“ulyčia” – old country road). First because they are useful, and secondly because it is a beautiful and pleasant-smelling tree. Linden bast (fibre) was once used to weave “vyžos” (bast shoes) and baskets, mats and rope. Some homesteaders were even skilled enough to make waterproof buckets.

Linden wood is soft, light white in colour, and does not split when dry. In olden days, people would carve various vessels from linden wood, such as a “liepinėlę” (linden honey-pot), a measuring vessel for grains or flour, as well as shell-shaped scrapers (geldutės) and even dugouts to hold linens (kraičlovis). For cross-carvers, linden wood was a favourite for sculpting holy images. In a word, it was a widely used type of wood. For this reason, the Lithuanian Constitution of 1588 prohibited the destruction of linden groves.

Blooming linden trees at Beekeeping Museum in Lithuania / photo Eglūnas Židonis photo
Bitininkystės muziejus photo Eglūnas Židonis photo

For bee-keepers, lindens around the homestead were vital as a prime source of honey. The value of honey produced from one full-grown linden was equal to that of a hectare (10,000 square metres) of buckwheat. Linden honey and linden blossoms were the first line of defense against colds and fever.

The great honey-harvest came at the end of the month, when friends (beekeeping friends have a special name in Lithuanian: “bičiuliai”) gathered for honey-spinning. Shared neighbourhood beekeeping is called “bičiulystė”, and is a uniquely Lithuanian tradition.

Rows of linden trees commonly lined the parks surrounding luxurious estates. Even now, lanes of century-old linden trees guard the ruins of many of them. When they are planted close together, they grow very tall, which is why in our folk songs, girls are likened to lindens. At the end of a country road one can often see its custodian, an old, burled linden. Such a one is Liepa Motinėlė, Mother Linden, guarding the village of Braziūkai in the Zapyškis district. This botanical treasure is the biggest linden in Lithuania, its perimeter measuring 8.4 metres. It is thought to be over 300 years old. What stories this tree could tell. It is so special to stand in the shade of this giant tree, buzzing with bees, overwhelmed by a feeling of celebration and peace.

According to ancient Lithuanian custom, the linden was the home of the goddess of fate, Laima, who would foretell the future through the voice of the cuckoo. In a various locations in Lithuania, holy lindens witnessed the rituals of the Old Baltic faith. Historiographical sources reveal a few of the names of those locations. In the 16th century, people would gather secretly to pray to Laima by the linden in the village of Šakūnai, near the Rusnė River. A statue of the god Patrimpas was found in Norkaičiai Forest under a linden tree. Writer Liudvikas Rėza mentions a thousand-year-old linden dedicated to Laima near Juodkrantė. Fishermen apparently still brought offerings there in the 18th century. In the Pilakalnis churchyard, there was a linden tree with an ingrown branch in its trunk. People believed that if you held your arm in the bow of that branch, it would relieve the pain of reaping rye. In the Mozūrai area of Poland, a monastery was built in a place called Holy Linden (Šventoji Liepa). A side altar in its amazingly beautiful church encompasses an entire linden tree, even its leaves, covered in copper.

With Lithuanian lore drawing so closely from nature, it is not surprising that there are many references to lindens in folk song. One of them refers to the “tops of lindens glowing gold, silver at their waists”. There is also a mythology surrounding linden trees, reflected in folk songs. One speaks of a nine-branched linden tree growing in the deepest reaches of the sea. Thus the linden becomes an image of the creation of the universe, rising from the depths to the skies, its blossoming expressing the rhythm of cosmic time.

Translated from an article by ethnologist Libertas Klimka on LRT.lt.