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Trees and society

Huge lime outside the church of Scharans, Canton Graubünden (in new window)

The huge lime outside the church of Scharans, Canton Graubünden, is some 700 years old.© swissworld.org

Lime trees in general played an important part in village life. For centuries village courts were held beneath them. When they died they were often replanted. The "court limes" standing today are relatively young, but they almost certainly stand in the same spot as their predecessors did for centuries before.

"Court trees" - not necessarily limes - go back a long way in Germanic custom. The name of the town of Malters in Canton Lucerne - first mentioned around the beginning of the 8th century - may be derived from "mahal-tre," meaning "gathering tree," the tree under which people met to see justice meted out.

Dance halls

Surprising as it may seem, the village lime tree sometimes also served as a dance hall. Not under the tree, but in the tree, where planks were laid over the almost horizontal branches. Not that the branches of lime trees grow horizontal of their own accord: they would have been tied down by people harvesting the tree for its flowers (still used today in tea) or for bast (the stringy park of bark used to tie up vines). In the course of several decades the branches grew firm enough in that position to support the considerable weight of people drinking and dancing on them.

The "official chestnut"

A tree in Geneva has quite a different public function. It is the "official chestnut" or "Treille chestnut," and is used to decide when spring has arrived. It is the task of the "sautier", the secretary general of the city's State Council, to report the appearance of the first leaf on this tree. The custom was started informally back in 1808 by a private citizen, but was taken over by the city in 1818, and the record has been kept ever since.

Over that time the date has varied considerably, the latest being in late April. 2003 set the record for the earliest spring: the first buds appeared before the year even started, on December 29th 2002. In 2006 unusually mild autumn weather caused the tree to flower twice in the same year: blossom came out in October. This was the first time such a phenomenon had been seen.

The tree, indicated by a plaque, can be seen on the terrace known as the Promenade de la Treille in Geneva's old town. The current chestnut is not the original one; it was selected for this role in 1929.