The various species of linden are some of my favorite trees. Known alternately as tilia (the botanic name for the genus), linden (as in Berlin’s famous avenue, Unter den Linden), basswood (the lovely, smooth wood novice woodcarvers begin with), lime tree (source of the British nickname for sailors: “limeys”), and monkey-nuts, the flowers of these trees reek of decadent scent, a flavor that translates into a marvelous cup of herbal tea.
Linden flowers will be out soon, and already the tell-tale bracts are appearing in the trees. When the flowers appear (if they are at all in reach, the scent should cue you to look for them), add a handful to a cup of hot water and let them steep for a while.
Not only is the resulting brew an excellent flavor (light, bright, lemony), Tilia is reputed to have calming properties, making it good for headaches, stress, high blood pressure, and insomnia. It’s possible it’s calming enough to actually be anti-spasmotic, a trait to pique the interest of epileptics and asthmatics, but I’m not finding clear enough scientific literature one way or the other on these traits yet.
Of the various species, Tilia americana is my favorite; it is the largest, growing 60 to 80 feet (18 to 25 meters) tall and decked out in large, soft 4 – 10 inch wide leaves (10 – 25 cm). At my old place in DC, there was a large American linden out front, so big I suspect it dated back to one of the tree planting surges that swept the city in the late 1800s as part of recovering from the American Civil War.
Some prior tenant, in a fit of brilliance, partnered the enormous tree with a full sized Japanese maple. Full sized Japanese maples go all the way to, mmm, maybe 20 feet (7 meters). They also have finely cut leaves (contrasting with the large linden leaves) that turn a brilliant red in the fall. The tilia turn a golden yellow: our yard looked sprinkled with confetti- a natural party every year. Japanese maples also have very smooth simple bark and delicate branching patterns, again a wonderful contrast with the massive, textural trunk of our linden.
I have yet to be in Berlin for the autumn, but if I ever make it, Unter den Linden in full golden glory will top of my tourist list. European lindens are similarly tall, but have a narrower form and smaller leaves.
Tilia cordata, the little leaf linden, is very similar to European lindens except in stature, making them more popular amongst timid, or maybe just controlling, American landscape designers. Our native linden is enormous and gorgeous, but I see the little leaf linden far more often when designers want a double file allee around an outdoor ice rink (DC’s sculpture garden has this) or something more contained in the roadway medians.
Don’t get me wrong- smaller has its place, and in Europe using the European linden makes total sense – but over here I’m tired of the big trees losing out to tiny plots of soil and overhead wires. As much as I loved that Japanese maple, it was the shade from our American linden that made several porches on the block livable in the hot summer.
Yes, eventually it cost a chunk of money to take down (after a wildly powerful storm that came just after roadwork cut into the tree’s root zone- I blame the roadwork, not the storm), but not before more than a century of summer shade had been enjoyed. Well over 100 years of robust joy? That’s priceless.