Tree of the moment: Linden

In fact, if we crinkle our eyes right, the linden tree (Tilia) is a tree of Christmas moments in both hemispheres – flowering in early summer and with the wood being a traditional medium for carving the most beautiful Father Christmas figures in Russia. And it gives me the perfect opportunity to wish all my readers, near and far, a peaceful and safe Christmas and a joyous start to 2020!

Linden wood is traditionally used by Russian wood-workers to make St Nicholas figures. They are very beautiful, surprisingly light and remarkably expensive! Furniture makers like linden wood for its straight grain. Image: Andrew & Vicka Gabriht
Ho, ho, ho. Another Russian beauty. (My wooden Santa from Russia is the size of a tree ornament.)

Sometimes also called lime trees (basswood in North America), these are no relation to the fruiting citrus trees, but rather grow into large specimens with copious quantities of small, fragrant flowers in early summer. There are native varieties to be found in the temperate parts of Europe, Asia and North America and ancient leaf fossils – 70 million years old – have been found in Siberia.

We noticed them last year in Stockholm and later on a day trip to Berlin were reminded that the famous central city street is called Unter den Linden, literally Under the Linden (trees). The first trees were planted here in 1647 and from 1701 it started to take shape as the city’s grandest street – which it remained until World War 2 – with a wide, pedestrian avenue dividing the street where people may stroll ‘unter den linden’.

A 1691 watercolour of Lindenallee, later Unter den Linden. Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the 1920s, this was the home of Berlin’s famous cabaret halls and where people like Marlene Dietrich got their start. However, the linden trees were disappearing in the 1930s, thanks to an underground-train tunnel being built, while the rest were destroyed by bombing or taken for firewood during the war. And then came the wall, which effectively cut the street into two dead ends for almost 30 years.

Today, Unter den Linden is again a tree-lined boulevard and central to Berlin, thanks to trees planted in the 1950s and with much building restoration work since the end of the war and then again after reunification, with some still ongoing.

Linden flowers seen in Stockholm, possibly Tilia cordata as this is the species native to Europe. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The great Swedish botanist Linneaus took his name from the linden tree, known as ‘linn’ in Swedish. Read about his life in this earlier post. And the tree is a national emblem for Slovakia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic, while the name of the German city Liepzig has its root in an old name for the tree.

Slavs used to plant linden trees close to important places such as churches and homes and believed lightning would not hit the holy tree, while Germanic peoples held councils and court sessions under linden trees, believing the tree would help establish the truth. If you’re interested in reading more, here’s a link to a detailed document about the symbolism of the linden tree (opens as a pdf).

Besides being highly perfumed, the tree’s flowers can also be used to make tea, while the leaves are apparently edible.

Under the mistletoe

Mistletoe features in many Christmas songs, stories and on cards – but even though we celebrate Christmas in the ‘wrong’ season we have our own native mistletoes flowering over summer.

According to the Department of Conservation website, New Zealand has nine mistletoe species: The three species found mainly in beech forest are red mistletoe (Peraxilla tetrapetala), scarlet mistletoe (P. colensoi) and yellow mistletoe (Alepis flavida); the five species found in lowland forest and scrub are small-flowered mistletoe (Ileostylus micranthus), white mistletoe (Tupeia antarctica) and three dwarf or leafless mistletoes (Korthalsella salicornioides, K.lindsayi and K. clavata). One species (Trilepedia adamsii or Adams’s mistletoe) is presumed extinct; it was last seen in 1954.

Scarlet mistletoe in flower in the southwest of the South Island. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Generally, populations are declining throughout the country, mainly due to browsing pests, such as possums and rats, a decline in the populations of native birds that pollinate the plants and spread the seeds, and loss of habitat.

The scarlet mistletoe and rifleman bird were featured on the $2 note which was in circulation from July 10, 1967 to 1991, when the note was replaced by a coin.

But the plants do themselves few favours. Researcher Jenny Ladley intended to hand-pollinate flowers during her work in 1992 but found many that had ripened but few that had opened. Suspecting she was missing something, she hauled herself up into a tree to watch – along came a tui which flicked the flower open with its beak, releasing pollen on to its head and gaining access to nectar at the base of the flower.

So specialised pollination, and if bird numbers decline in an area, the potential for a low pollination season. What else? Some mistletoes have relationships with only a limited number of trees and so the seed has to find the right host; all the native mistletoes grow extremely slowly (15mm in 2 years!) making them extremely vulnerable to browsing animals; and the flowering rate varies from year to year. Read more in this NZ Geographic article.

One way of knowing if you’re in a mistletoe area in the New Zealand bush in summer is to look at the track for the telltale fallen red flowers. The plants are often growing high above you.

Our mistletoe, like its European counterparts, is semiparasitic, meaning that although it takes nutrients from its host tree, it also photosynthesises its own food and doesn’t kill the host.

A Victorian Christmas card showing a kiss between a mistletoe girl and a holly boy.

Although mistletoe is now associated with Christmas, myths around the plant date back to at least the Viking era.

When the god Odin’s son Baldur was prophesied to die, his mother Frigg, the goddess of love, went to all the animals and plants and asked them to promise not to harm him. But she neglected to consult with the unassuming mistletoe, so the scheming god Loki made an arrow from the plant, which was used to kill Baldur. According to happier versions, the gods were able to resurrect Baldur. Frigg then declared mistletoe a symbol of love and peace and promised a kiss to all who passed beneath it.

NZ Rose Trial Results 2019

By Hayden Foulds

A rose named for the breeder’s mother topped the list of awards presented at the New Zealand Rose Society International Rose Trial Grounds in Palmerston North earlier this month.

Tauranga rose breeder Rob Somerfield, from Rob Somerfield Roses, topped the trials with his ‘Grandma’s Rose’ which won the Gold Star of the South Pacific, the top award at the trial grounds. “The name is a tribute to my mother from her grandchildren, they felt it was her colour,” Rob said.

Grandma’s Rose, bred by Rob Somerfield, is the winner of the 2019 Gold Star of the South Pacific. Photo: Hayden Foulds

Rob, who also did well at the Pacific Rose Bowl Festival in November, also received a Certificate of Merit for the cream variety ‘Old Friends’. Both his roses will be introduced to the market in the next couple of years.

Berry Nice, bred by Bob Matthews of Whanganui, received a Certificate of Merit. Photo: Matthews Nurseries

Certificates of Merit were also awarded to the magenta pink ‘Berry Nice’ bred by Bob Matthews of Matthews Nurseries Ltd in Whanganui and to the yellow ‘Lemon Ruffles’, bred by Canadian breeder Brad Jalbert and entered by Amore Roses of Hamilton. This is the first time a Canada-bred rose has won an award at the trials. Both these varieties are already on the market in New Zealand.

The New Zealand Rose Society trials are now into their 49th year and test new varieties from New Zealand and international rose breeders and are assessed over 2 years by a panel of 20 judges who mark for such as freedom of flowering, health, plant quality, flower quality and fragrance.

At the conclusion of each trial, those roses which have gained an average of 70% are recognised with awards and reflect the consistently high performance that they have achieved during the trial period.

In 2020, the trials celebrate their 50th anniversary and a number of activities and events are planned to mark this occasion, including the National Rose Show being held in Palmerston North, the naming of a new rose for the city and the publication of a book on the rose trials.

Strawberry fair

If it’s December in New Zealand, it’s strawberry season! Backyards, balconies, decks … all sorts of corners and growing containers are put into service. The Vege Grower has covered his raised bed with soft netting to keep the birds out (although has relented with the fig tree and allowed some branches to grow through the netting ‘so we share with the birds’) and we’ve already had a few feeds off the plants.

If you don’t grow them yourself there are still berry farms, sadly reducing in number, where you can go to pick your own, always fun with children!

When I was in Japan, early in spring there, this year, my eye was caught by some of the ‘different’ strawberries on sale – white and pink, as well as the more usual red.

These white strawberries (front) were for sale in the Takashiyama department store in Tokyo. The price on the sticker equates to $NZ38 – for seven strawberries! Photo: Sandra Simpson

According to this 2017 article, the most expensive white strawberry is White Jewel (Shiroi Houseki), bred by Yasuhito Teshima and put on the market in 2013. But even with its specialised breeding that eliminates the protein that makes ripe strawberries red, the fruit also needs to be grown correctly for it to remain completely white with reduced exposure to light being key. But Yasuhito Teshima says that even after years of trial and error, it’s pretty much still a lottery with only 10% of his strawberries turning out white, and only a few of those being perfectly pale.

Here’s a 2017 video featuring Mr Teshima talking about his strawberries (subtitled).

Gift giving is the social oil of Japan and, with space in homes generally at a premium, the best sort of gift to receive is a consumable – which is where rare and unusual fruit comes into its own.

Nara Strawberry Lab is a co-operative of young growers. This pack offers red, pink and white fruit. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Setting off for our hanami (picnic under the flowering cherry trees) meant a stop at Shinjuku’s Takashiyama department store and the amazing – and extensive – basement food hall. I was intrigued by the sight of fruit and cream sandwiches, so much so that we bought a strawberry one to try. It wasn’t terrible!

Sweet sandwiches – strawberries and cream or mandarins and cream. The strawberry sandwich is about $NZ6 for two halves. Photo: Sandra Simpson