Usefulness and services of the tree :
Linked trees - twinning
Features and characters of the individual
From a distance it looks like this lime tree is young. However, it is actually the oldest of its species in Brussels: a seasoned tree with a hollow trunk. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, lime trees die and are reborn several times in their lifetime. Old postcards show that this tree withdrew in on itself during the 20th century. However, it has not been defeated and is now vigorously establishing a new crown.
The Phoenix tree
As the name suggests, the old lime tree is a veteran of Brussels history. Much has already been written about its age. It is so ancient that it could be the last survivor of the meadows bordering the hamlet of Boondael. Was it planted in the 15th century by a family of farmers who had settled there? Did it witness the feasts organised by Charles V, or the horse races held in honour of the patron saint by the Arquebusiers Guild? Some believe it to have been planted in 1463, when Saint Adrian’s chapel was founded. Others believe that it only sprouted in the 17th century, when the chapel was rebuilt. Today, it is judged to be some 400 years old, but it is possible that it is much older.
Going back in time
For those who are able to interpret the architecture of this living monument, there are unmistakable signs. First of all, the trunk is very thick: it would take at least three people to reach around its circumference of 5.60 metres. Also, its magnificent crown creates a large dome around the chapel. These signs confirm that the tree has been there for several centuries. But they are not sufficient to precisely determine its date of birth.
To find out its exact age, one would normally count the number of rings in its trunk (a tree grows one ring per year). But the old lime tree of Ixelles is completely hollow. It is therefore necessary to delve into the archives of the Region and the city if one is to attempt to trace its history.
Historical documents do not allow us to go back all the way to 1463. But in 1717, the lime tree of Boondael caught the attention of a surveyor. He drew a picture of it, with notes, and his illustration shows that the tree already had a century-old silhouette. On this basis, this individual tree is certainly at least 400 years old, which is actually not all that much for a linden tree of its kind. In fact, in favourable conditions, the Tilia platyphyllos, or large-leaved lime tree (also known as the large-leaved linden) can easily live up to 800 or 1000 years.
A series of postcards show how this tree was completely reconstructed in the 20th century. Around 1900, it was quite diminished. It had clearly lost many branches in the course of the 19th century. Its trunk had become hollow, its crown had shrunk. The stalwart individual had become withdrawn. But later, in the 20th century, he regained his spirit and his bushy mane returned to fill the space. This incredible capacity for regeneration is written into the DNA of lime trees.
From the ashes reborn
With its soft wood, this species is prone to deterioration. But it has strategies that enable it to survive for centuries. In summer, the lime tree is able to shed its leaves at times of great drought, and to regrow them as soon as there is water again. When cut, it is able to regenerate from the stump.
When its environment becomes unfavourable, it will shed its branches as well as large parts of its crown. This is one way to conserve energy. Its trunk becomes hollow, sometimes even along its entire length. It collapses into itself, sometimes leaving nothing but a stump, biding its time until conditions are better to regrow. Because that's all it needs to rise again: like the Phoenix reborn from its ashes, new shoots sprout from its old stump. That is why we sometimes find colonies of lime trees growing in a crescent shape: they are in fact all part of a single individual, a very old tree that was once a giant.
An arboreal signature
The legendary longevity of the lime tree has made it a tree of choice for marking place and time. Since the Middle Ages, they have been planted near places of worship (chapels, shrines, cemeteries, etc), on village squares, or as focal points in landscapes. People have relied on their ability to endure over the centuries to leave their traces in history and geography, a bit like a signature.
In the case of the old lime tree of Ixelles, this process has been a success. It has weathered multiple centuries and lends its name to the square on which it grows. For 400 years, its history has been intertwined with the life of the municipality of Boondael. And it has clearly been cherished by many generations of residents.
The tree of hearts
The leaves of the lime tree are cordate (heart-shaped) with finely serrated edges. The leaves of the Tilia platyphyllos are especially large. They are a symbol of love and fidelity. Like many other lime trees, no doubt this tree holds the secrets of many lovers. Its spreading canopy has surely been a part of village life: baptisms, weddings, burials and gatherings. The scent of its blossoms wafts through the entire district on summer evenings, while the tea made from their infusion has soothed many a winter ailment.
Has this great hollow tree acted as a refuge, a healer, or a Christian shrine? Although it is now so empty and hollow, this lime tree has never been touched by an axe or a chainsaw. It has been pampered by the residents of the municipality of Ixelles who wouldn't dream of it.
In the course of the 20th century, it has been given a few boosts. A water pump was installed at its foot, so that inhabitants would gather in its shade to stock up on water. And then, in 1936, the old tree became a listed monument. This living monument in fact stole the spotlight from the neighbouring chapel, which did not receive the same honours.
The authorities were never afraid that the tree would collapse. They gave it a chance. Rather than cutting it down, they supported it on its journey through history. To ensure stability, its cavity was filled with a column of concrete that was given a bark-like texture to make the repair as discreet as possible. On the side near the chapel, the ‘rockeries’ have gradually been swallowed up by the tree, a sign of its recovery. In some places, the tree also has bumps in the bark: it has grown over the bolts of rods screwed into the trunk to prevent it from cracking.
Today, the veteran is behaving like quite the fit, young whippersnapper. It only goes to show what a tree is capable of when given a bit of trust… The greatest gift that we could give him now would be to fill his large cavity with organic matter. This way, the old lime tree would be able to grow new roots inside of its trunk, which could reach the ground and grow larger. By creating these natural cables, the lime tree would be able to buttress its architecture for the next millennium.
This portrait is enriched with an illustration from the Belgian Federal State Collection on permanent loan to the Meise Botanical Garden. See attached. Thanks to the library (heritage collection) for this contribution. https://www.plantentuinmeise.be/en/home/