The linden tree and the Slovenians

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    June 2011

    The linden tree can be found in large parts of Central and Southern Europe, from the Iberian peninsula to the Black Sea; linden trees are sparse only in the more northerly latitudes of the continent. In ancient Greece and Rome, this tree was a symbol of friendship and tender, faithful love, and many European peoples, especially those of Slavic origin, elevated the linden tree to a ritual tree that became an object of worship.   In Slovenian folk tradition, this attitude towards the linden tree can be seen, in particular, in folk dances around the linden tree in villages in the Koroška region, also known as rej pod lipo (dancing under the linden tree).  There is also a popular belief that the linden tree has healing properties — linden flower tea and linden charcoal have particularly beneficial health properties — which cannot be overlooked.

    The linden tree in folk tradition

    The linden tree is a symbol of the Slovenian nation, although Slovenian folk tradition lacks any real arguments to support this, especially since the role and importance of the linden tree stretch as far back as the period before there was any real sense of national awareness.

    Linden trees can live to a great age and their trunks can be truly massive. There are quite a lot of linden trees in Slovenia that have taken several hundreds of years to grow, with the oldest being over 700 years old. Ancient linden trees can be found today in front of village churches, in castle yards, and in village or town squares. The linden tree marks the place where the village community met for social gatherings and where decisions on matters of common interest were made. The branches of a linden tree provided shade for stone tables and benches, a popular meeting place for local leaders and the village community.  

    The tradition holds that, since time immemorial, people have planted linden trees to mark special occasions. It is said that the oldest trees were planted as early as at the time of the Turkish incursions; they were planted in places where the Turks were either defeated or forced to retreat. These linden trees are still known today as 'Turkish linden trees'. Several linden tree plantations, especially linden tree-lined avenues, originating from the latter years of the Ages of Enlightenment and Classicism, have been preserved up to the present day. The most famous of these is Napoleon's linden avenue at the entrance to Logatec along the state road, which was once the major road from Ljubljana to Trieste. The linden tree avenue, which comprises 290 trees, is almost two kilometres long. Part of the avenue had to be restored because of its age — it was planted in around 1810, at the time of French-ruled Illyrian Provinces, to mark the wedding of the French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, and the Austrian Princess, Marie Louise. The avenue was therefore first named after Louise and then eventually changed to Napoleon's avenue. The avenue is protected as a horticultural monument. Several other linden tree avenues of an earlier date are also protected as monuments, along with tens of old linden trees in front of village churches and in village squares at a number of locations in Slovenia.

    The linden tree and Slovenian statehood

    During the period of the Slovenian national awakening and the Slovenian people's increasing national awareness, the linden tree became one of the symbols of the Slovenian nation, in contrast to the oak tree, a symbol of the German nation, or for example, the birch tree, which is associated with Russia and the Russian nation.  There has never been a special emphasis on the linden tree in Slovenian national iconography, although, prior to Slovenia's independence, the coat of arms of the People's Republic of Slovenia and, subsequently, the former Socialist Republic of Slovenia — as a part of the former Yugoslavia — featured linden leaves wound around ears of wheat.  Linden leaves, however, took on an even more meaningful significance in a large advertising campaign entitled 'Slovenia, my country', which was launched in the 1980s. The campaign was initially designed to promote Slovenian tourism, but went well beyond its initial purpose and, by virtue of being advertised on television daily and on a number of billboards, heralded a more self-confident Slovenia. This, as some suggested subsequently, contributed to Slovenia's stand which led to its independence at the beginning of the 1990s.

    Another such symbol is GEOSS, the Geometric Centre of the Republic of Slovenia near Vače nad Litijo — a project that indicated that Slovenia's statehood was being strengthened as early as ten years prior to Slovenia's independence. The Geoss memorial marker was erected in 1982, right next to a linden tree that had been planted there a year earlier and has since grown into a mighty tree. In the years just before Slovenia gained independence, an attempt was made to introduce Slovenia's own currency, called the lipa (a linden tree). The architect of this project was Bogdan Oblak, who earned himself the nickname 'Hammurabi'. However, the project did not bear fruit, but the proposed currency is remembered by the people at the time as being a symbolic milestone in Slovenian history.

    The linden tree, however, continues to have most symbolic importance in terms of the establishment of Slovenian statehood. Twenty years ago, on the day the Republic of Slovenia proclaimed its independence and sovereignty, a linden tree was planted in Republic Square (Trg republike) in front of the National Assembly building. Slovenia's independence was also marked by a number of other linden trees which were planted all over Slovenia at that time. The tradition of planting linden trees to mark particularly important events, which can be traced as far back as the Middle Ages, is still honoured today, not least on occasions such as official visits by foreign statesmen, who often plant a memorial linden tree to mark a special occasion.

    Meetings of Slovenian statesmen under the Najevnik linden tree

    To conclude this short overview of the significance of the linden tree for the lives of Slovenians in the past, of how it accompanied and affected their lives, of what they saw in it and of the importance they attached to it, we should return back to the oldest linden tree in Slovenia — the linden tree on Ludranski vrh, high in the hills above Črna na Koroškem.  It was named the Najevnik linden tree after the Najevnik farm on which it was grown and is the oldest of all the linden trees in Slovenia. The Najevnik linden tree is said to be over 700 years old, although its exact age can only be estimated as its trunk, which measures over ten metres in circumference, is hollow and its rings cannot be counted. In 1993, the Najevnik linden tree was successfully restored to health according to the principles of tree surgery and protected from destruction.

    In August 1991, only one month after Slovenia had proclaimed its independence, Slovenian statesmen met for the first time under the Najevnik linden tree to visit these places, meet local inhabitants and continue the tradition of democracy in its original sense in village communities — an arrangement in which power remains most closely linked to the people and which is committed to open dialogue with political opponents and the opposition. In the years that followed, these meetings became a tradition; they were held annually, although more prominent politicians no longer attended in great numbers.  The somewhat naïve, but spontaneously developed initiative to hold these meetings, however, continued to exist, and the owner of the Osojnik farm, better known as the Najevnik farm, will now have the opportunity to invite Slovenian politicians and statesmen to a meeting under the Najevnik linden tree for the twenty-first time. The Najevnik linden tree, with its widely spreading branches that dominate the scene, symbolises an urgent need to bring democracy back to its roots, enabling statesmen to reflect on their commitment to fundamental democratic values while interacting with ordinary people.


    Text by: Albert Kos
    Photo: Tomo Jeseničnik, Mateja J. Potočnik, Darinka Mladenovič