The City Naturalist

City Naturalist

Basswood Tree

Article and Photos by Leslie Day

Common Names: American Basswood, Bee Tree, Whitewood, Limetree.

In late June and early July, can you smell a sweet, haunting fragrance wafting around the city? It comes from the American Linden or Basswood tree, a large tree, growing up to 130 feet tall with a trunk diameter of 2 to 3 feet, and a rounded crown. The bark is furrowed with large "S" shaped ridges going up the trunk. There are several as you enter Riverside Park at 79th and Riverside Drive and start walking north. There are more at the southern end of the park. Walk up the hill past the running tract, go through the tunnel and as you come out and head up to 74th Street and Riverside, you will pass several Lindens both on your left and on your right.

The Linden is often planted as a shade or street tree because of its fairly rapid rate of growth, plentiful shade and fragrant flowers. In cities its fruit are eaten by squirrels, while in the country its fruit are eaten by chipmunks and other small rodents. White-tailed deer and cottontail rabbits eat the bark and sprouts during the winter. Old basswoods are very frequently hollow, making excellent nesting and den sites for many kinds of birds and mammals.

FLOWERS: The fragrant flowers of the Linden tree hang from the middle of leafy, ribbon-like green bracts in long-stalked clusters. The flowers are tiny, with 5 yellowish-white petals. During the last weeks of June and first weeks of July they exude a powerful, haunting scent that can be detected up to a mile away. The flowers possess a nectar which attracts bees and produces a strong flavored honey. When this tree is in flower it will be full of bees, hence its common name "Bee Tree". During the three weeks that the Lindens bloom, bees forsake most other flowers. The honey that they make of Linden nectar is white in color, and regarded as high in quality. The flowers when gathered and dried can be used to make tea. During the flowering period, the people that manufacture perfumes use the heady scent for their products.

FRUIT: When the flowers go to seed they form small nutlets that contain l to 2 seeds each, clustered beneath large leafy wing bracts which act as parachutes as they carry the seeds to the ground. The fruits are woody and about the size of peas.

LEAVES: The leaves are heart-shaped, 4-6 inches long, 3-4 inches wide, dark green with extremely shiny undersides. When the wind blows, the leaf blades are flung over to reveal a glistening bright underside.

WOOD: Linden wood is soft and creamy, and it is much favored by woodcarvers because of its workability (it is said to "cut like cheese") and its even grain. In past centuries it was used to make ship's figureheads and cigar-store Indians. Today it is used for broom handles, beehive frames, piano sounding boards and certain parts of guitars.

BARK: The Linden's inner bark is fibrous and can be twisted and woven into cords, ropes and matting. Native Americans of the Northeastern tribes used it to make bags to carry food in and thongs. Rope was made from it by "retting" - keeping the bark under water for about a month, until the soft tissues rotted away leaving the fibrous tissue. Thread made of Basswood bark was used to stitch together mats made of cattail leaves and the bark was used to bind up warriors wounds. The Iroquois carved masks from the sapwood on the living tree and then split it off from the trunk and hollowed it out from behind.

RANGE: Quebec south to Delaware, Atlantic coast west to Eastern Kentucky.

HABITAT: The Linden prefers moist soils of valleys and uplands; in hardwood forests.

MYTHOLOGY: The Green Dryads or tree spirits were said to be wedded to Linden trees. In Roman mythology the Linden tree was a symbol of conjugal love and fidelity.

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