An old orchard with painted bark. Picture from Dreamstime
You may have happened to see tree trunks that have been painted
white. Well, probably not if you live in places where the winters are
mild, but certainly if you live in the north of Europe. In fact, I often
used to be surprised that I had never seen anyone in southern Italy
whitening tree trunks with lime the way they did every year in Poland.
At the beginning of winter, around December, my grandfather began going round the orchard with a big bucket of slaked lime, and covering the trunks of all the fruit trees with a thick white layer. The fruit trees of the village brightened up and there was a clean smell in the air, Perhaps it was just that smell that made many people think that the main purpose in painting the trees white was to disinfect them and protect them against parasites and diseases.
In actual fact this process serves to protect the tree against sudden changes in temperature caused by the daytime sun’s rays. The tissues of the tree, heated up during the day become very susceptible to frost and to the low temperatures during the night. This is especially important during the period between winter and spring when the increasing temperatures in the daytime stimulate the process of regrowth, as the trees are liable to most damage from late frosts. With the white layer of lime, the temperature inside the tree remains low and regrowth is delayed until frosts become less likely.
Quite apart from these practical aspects, I remember this painting the trees white above all because of the aesthetic effect it produces. In the grayness of the long north European winters, when there is not always snow to soften the landscapes, the stark white trunks of the fruit trees were a very welcome sight for sore eyes. Particularly in the orchards of the past, so very different than the ones nowadays with their low standardized aspect. In old-time orchards the trees were twisted and had stories to tell. Stories about trees, handed down from one generation to another, about trees looked after lovingly for years, about precious margots exchanged among friends and kept jealously away from enemies. About knees being grazed and clothes torn when you slid down the trunk, and falling off the step-ladders placed precariously to reach the branches farthest away where the fruit was riper and tastier.
Orchards with their trees of varied shape and height, but planted in straight lines, often interspersed with bushes of redcurrants, white currants and blackcurrants, gooseberries and raspberries, were a precious, inseparable part of every village in the countryside until just a few decades ago. And at the only moment of the year when the trees lost their leaves and their fruit, and so their prime purpose as a source of nourishment, painting them white seemed to give them back that touch of importance that made them different than other trees and emphasized how precious they were for people. And the sculpted shapes of the white trunks, standing out even more clearly against the gray backdrop of the ploughed fields, seemed to whisper to us children: “be patient a bit longer, we’re here sheltering, but before very long you’ll be able to climb us again and collect our treasures”.
An old orchard in spring. Picture from Dreamstime