1 Tilia (Basswood Genus)

Family Connections

Beneath the city park’s American basswood tree (Tilia americana), otherwise known as American linden, I am crouched. It is a warm, sunny morning in September, almost two years after my dad’s death. The tree I’m under is classified in the genus Tilia, the same tree genus from which my Babcia (Polish for grandmother) gathered blossoms seasonally every July. She was my dad’s mom. Tilia goes back in our family lore since Babcia, as an immigrant to the US at age 19, brought her native language and culture with her including knowing the healing power of lindens. In Polish, the month of July is called Lipiec, which derives from the word lipowy, meaning linden tree and also from the word lipa, which means lime. (In Europe and Great Britain, lindens are also called lime trees.) For a culture to name a month after a tree that blooms during that time reveals the reverence held for this sacred tree in Babcia’s native homeland. The flowers she was accustomed to gathering from the European version, the little-leaf linden (Tilia cordata), bloom a bit later and are a bit more potent than those of its American counterpart, but perhaps only slightly.

Starting in late June as if in celebration of summer, Tilia americana trees are laden with thousands of flowers hanging down in glorious white clusters known as cymes. Heat draws out compounds from the flowers into a calming tea, used also for lung congestion. My dad recalls summer days of his mother coming home with a basket of the fresh flowers, their aromatic fragrance lingering and filling the rooms. She would dry the blossoms in the attic, then make tea from them throughout the year whenever someone in the household came down with a cold. The gentle, supportive words of this quiet woman taking care of her family goes hand-in-hand with the subtle healing effects that herbs, as medicine, possess.

Basswood flowers grow suspended from light green, leaf-like appendages, called bracts in botany, and are eye-catching enough to make them a good way to identify the tree, for all Tilia have bracts. The flowers form into a nut-like seed that resembles a small berry ripening late summer into fall. The bracts and their little, round seeds can often hang on into winter. They supply much-needed food for birds and many other forest creatures. In fact, all parts of the basswood tree are edible or used in herbal medicine for humans. In late May, I toss the still small and tender leaves into a refreshing spring salad mix for my family. Bees forsake all else for the intoxicating flowers that are abundantly filled with both nectar and pollen, from which they produce a wonderful honey. That is why the basswood, linden or lime tree is also known as the Bee-tree!

As a seven year old, I valued basswood blossoms differently from Babcia. My approach was to gather the dried up flowers after they fell and add them to my play kitchen; also the leaf bud coverings (called scales or perules) that pop off in the spring and drop from the newly opening buds as the leaves emerge. These moist, tender perules carpet the ground and lace the edges of puddles for a short time until they dry up and blow away. Every species has their own color, scent and texture of perules. From my point of view, the huge basswood tree next door offered a nice contrast to our own towering elm tree for my collecting. Scraping the perules up off the driveway and sidewalks, I would separate the different kinds into bowls set out in my ‘kitchen’ in the backyard. The gray weathered bench that my dad used to saw wood was the centerpiece. It included a rag found from the back porch which I draped over a stick held in place on the top of the bench with a brick. One big bowl served as stew pot for me to cook up a concoction with my freshly gathered pantry of varied ingredients. All I needed was water from the hose and a stick to stir with and I was completely absorbed and content. I loved doing this.

Perules and their differences, in fact, were what first led me to really take notice of my neighbor’s tree. The large, heart-shaped, shiny leaves of his tree as opposed to our elm’s so intrigued me that one day I asked my neighbor what kind of tree it was and made sure to remember the answer.

“Basswood.”

“That’s a funny name,” I replied. “Like a fish made of wood.”

He smiled, and observing the tree added,

“It’s getting so big, though, we might have to cut it down.”

“I hope you don’t do that,” I blurted, a bit shocked. I showed him my bowl of perules as if to convince him of the tree’s importance, feeling suddenly helpless at the whims of adults. “See what I do with them?”

Most likely, each of us has at least one story in which a tree appears.  Sharing these is a good way to bring to light the important role these allies play in our lives. Many of us have a tree or special plant that is part of our everyday landscape.  So much so, that they may have become true companions even if we don’t realize it. Over time, we might walk past our tree every day without really noticing. Just like family or people you see habitually, it’s easy to stop clueing into their little changes. In the same way, trees grow so slowly that their subtleties can elude us until something happens to get our attention.

The day this struck home to me was in our house “up north” (aka northern Minnesota). One morning I opened the window blinds to the Scots pine that for decades has peeked up from the other side of the neighbor’s garage across the alley. That tree has always been a steadfast part of my getting up routine, welcoming me to the day, and is something I had almost (not quite) taken it for granted. That day, for some reason upon lifting the blinds, I suddenly realized how it had grown 25 feet or so in the last 30 years. What a majestic tree it had become right under my nose! How could I have missed this? In that moment, a sense of connectedness with that tree came upon me. I felt so grateful for it simply to be there in my life. The next year, unfortunately, my neighbor cut it down just like the basswood of my girlhood eventually was. My point is, these departed companions leave holes in the landscape that become cherished memories just as for any friend or loved one. It’s an absence that’s not always easy to get used to.

By now, you may have guessed that trees are a passion of mine!

The reason I’m crouched down today beneath the basswood on this late September morning in the park, is that my fingers have inadvertently dropped a nail into the grass and duff at my feet. Have you ever noticed that when you drop a nail, screw, drill bit, earring and so on, it immediately disappears into nature? My colleague and I search for five minutes or so and come up empty. So, I take out another nail from my pouch and proceed with our project affixing tree identification tags to 20 or so exemplar species in the city park, trees I chose both for their beauty and location in the general area of what my dad, who first started this whole thing, called Tree Trek.

Tree Trek was and still is a two hour in-person guided tour through the park connecting people to trees through explanations of their distinguishing characteristics, botany, history and place in our culture. When various factors including old age caused my dad to stop leading Tree Treks, the program fell to the wayside and languished. The year after his passing, I approached the district with the offer of reviving the event and was delighted when they agreed, for this was an opportunity to carry on my dad’s legacy while also sharing my own deep, enthusiastic love of trees. This then led to the current tree tagging project, another of my dad’s innovations related to Tree Trek but something a ‘trekker’ can just do on their own time in the form of a self-guided tree ID tour any time of the year.

Trees with small, permanent signs attached are always waiting to tell their stories, both with the short text printed on each sign as well as education that comes from the confidence of knowing what you are looking at. Observations can take off at that point, convenient and available for your own further research. This is how I find myself, almost two years after my dad’s death shuffling about on my hands and knees beneath the green, fluttering leaves of the basswood tree, companionably searching for a nail with my new friend, Susan Jane, from the park district’s environmental committee. Susan Jane’s advocacy has been essential in getting this second tagging project going, which is to expand my dad’s original 18 tagged trees to a total of about 38 tagged species. Last spring, she and I surveyed the area to begin the process of choosing suitable trees, enjoying getting to know each other a bit at the same time. Then, two weeks ago in early September, I completed the survey on my own to be ready for today.

Seeming from out of the blue, the question she asks me at that moment and under that particular species of tree stabs at my heart, moves me onward and forward on my circle of grief and searching to understand that place where continuing my dad’s legacy intersects.

She asks,

“Do you ever feel your dad’s presence now that he’s gone?”

She had known my dad through their shared several years serving on the environmental committee together. So, while this question comes naturally and genuinely from her, it is also unexpected. Pausing in surprise, my heart clenches a bit as I look up.

“No,” I say immediately, then feeling the need for a bit more clarification add, “You mean by doing Tree Treks and all this tree tagging?”

“Well, yes,” she says, “or just anywhere?”

“No, not exactly here today or anything much,” I reply, a bit confused, “I mean, I didn’t even know that he did Tree Treks; he didn’t talk about it, and I only found out later. We shared a love of nature, and so I do feel his presence here in the park sometimes.”

It feels like a weak answer and so it is, but then some deeper knowledge suddenly rises from within me, a geyser of truth welling up tears to my eyes. I see in that moment, many moving parts of the last year of my dad’s life, that spring day at Mayo Clinic sitting next to him during the cancer diagnosis, my body tensing, knowing before my mind did of what was to come. Later that same weekend on my drive back home, alone in the car, grief rising up from some primal place within me into uncontrollable, unbidden wails that reverberated against the windshield and roof. During that ensuing summer’s months of chemo treatment visits and other follow-ups, many opportunities arose for close, unlooked for moments of deep companionship and support that I knew, even if I didn’t think of it consciously, were some of the last times we’d share together.

“Well, I’d like to tell you sometime,” I say, aware that the confused emotions within me won’t let me elaborate right now. In an attempt to recover, I draw in a breath and think of something else to say instead.

“For a while, I didn’t even dream about him at all,” I continue, “Lately, though, I’ve started to have more, like two weeks ago I dreamed he was holding this interesting looking, oppositely branched leaf stem and looking at it in a puzzled way, turning it this way and that. It had very large, broad leaves, sort of like flags fanning out on each side.”

“Do you know what species this is?” he asked me.

“No, but let me ID it for you, Dad. Here give it to me,” I said, reaching for the twig.

He did so, and there was a sense of shared relief that passed between us as he handed it over, a feeling of rightness that I was taking it. That was the dream.”

“Hmm,” Susan Jane muses, “That’s interesting. I like how it fits in with what you’re doing here in the park, carrying on his legacy.”

“Yes.” I reply, “I guess you’re right.”

But that is not what I want to tell her. What I want to say is so vital to me that I need to wait first for the right time and maybe even to set it down in words, this complicated exploration of my deep feelings of grief and loss that perhaps, somehow, only trees will be able to help me translate.

Trees have much to share with us beyond shade, oxygen, wood products, food and their beauty. Living alongside us as we grow and age, sometimes for our entire lifetimes and beyond, trees are always available to hold our memories, joys, sorrows and major life events in their strong branches while we attempt to explain ourselves.

They offer us a way to begin.

While my father and linden trees go back to his childhood, I recently learned a new story about our family and the linden from my sister, in the context of the two of us standing outside caught in a rainstorm. She had come to our childhood home to take over from my week’s caregiving duties to my mom, so I stayed a few days extra and scheduled a Fall Tree Trek. My sister was unable to attend, but that very afternoon afterwards I took her on a little private ‘tree trek’ tour. We didn’t get far, though, before the weather changed, the skies opened up and it just poured. Too far away from the car to turn back, we took shelter under a Norway maple tree, the closest tree with big leaves. In between the raindrops and shifting around in a fruitless attempt to find the driest way to wait it out, we talked.

The experience, she said as we stood there together, reminded her of a trip to Poland she had taken with my parents and another sister two decades before. In a rainstorm just like this one, there was nowhere to go but under a nearby tree. The four of them found themselves taking shelter under a little-leaf linden tree (Tilia cordata), the species that is native to Europe, beloved in Poland. The closeness this brought among them was similar to what my sister and I were sharing now beneath the Norway maple, bringing up remembrances of our family and childhood. As we talked, it surfaced that neither of us knew the other had oftentimes as children climbed to the top of our front yard’s Norway maple (now replaced with a Tilia cordata) that grew high and majestic on our home’s front lawn. We learned from each other that both of us had spent hours up there during our growing up years. I had never known this about her, and vice versa! My sister then shared with me that after they returned home from the aforementioned Poland trip, she brought up to my dad how hurt she had felt during some other very awkward, unhappy moments she experienced on that trip. Dad, she said, turned to her and said in an astonished voice,

“But what about the rainstorm underneath the linden tree? Wasn’t that great?”

She told him the same thing she was telling me now, as we stood with rain pouring down from our heads because the Norway maple was no longer able to shield us in any way under this kind of a downpour, that this was, indeed, the highlight of that trip and a precious memory. She couldn’t disagree.

What a lovely thing to carry forward!

Along with the stories we tell about trees, every tree we come across has its own story waiting to be heard as well. Each species is unique in its own way, with its own culture, characteristics and morphology. When we start looking at trees, really observing, we can find so much more going on behind the scenes than we ever realized – the drama, courtship, relationships between soil and roots, evasive strategies. Scientists have found that trees even communicate with each other. Learning what stories trees have to tell has enabled me to move through my grief after the loss of my father. My dad, who also loved trees, would understand when I say that in listening with both heart and mind to what trees have to say, I have become their storyteller as well.

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Tree Trek Copyright © 2022 by Stephanie Mirocha Ellison. All Rights Reserved.

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