July – American linden
Over the last few months, we’ve taken a look at some smaller-sized trees. While these were some of the more visually stunning species we’ll cover this year, trees like witch hazel, redbud, and fringetree are all species that lack a bit of height. But for everyone reading who enjoys a large, stately tree with a presence, you’re in luck this month.
Standing tall and mighty, this month’s tree is the American linden (Tilia americana). If you’ve never heard of this tree before, it might be because it is more commonly known as the basswood. Regardless of the name you choose, this tree is a wonder to behold and a true asset wherever it grows.
The American linden is a fast-growing, deciduous tree native to the Philadelphia Area, but its range extends from parts of Maine to North Dakota and as far south as Arkansas and Oklahoma. Its home is in central hardwood woodlands where it can reach heights of 60-80 feet tall – but if the conditions are just right, it can hit heights of almost 100 feet.
In fact, Tannersville, Pennsylvania was home to a national champion at one point. In 1947, a specimen at the base of Big Pocono Mountain was deemed the largest of its kind in the country, boasting a massive 104-foot height and 75-foot canopy spread. Its base measured an impressive 20 feet, seven inch circumference. As if its pure size wasn’t enough, its 300-year-old lifespan made it an even more incredible tree. To put that in perspective, when William Penn arrived in the area in 1682, this juvenile linden tree had already carved out a space for itself in the forest.
Not all individuals are that tall, however – you can find smaller trees around the Philadelphia urban landscape. You can even locate one within the picnic grove in Awbury’s English Landscape. There are a few quick ways to identify the American linden. Larger trees often have two or more trunks, giving it a forked appearance. Its bark is gray and furrowed with flat ridges, as if someone took a rolling pin over them. And the leaves are heart-shaped with fine teeth at the edges.
This time of year, the American linden is finishing its flowering season. These light-yellow blooms are subtle compared to other flowering species, but they have a pleasant fragrance up close. More importantly, these flowers attract a copious amount of pollinators (66 different types according to one study), which has given the American linden the nickname “bee tree.” Along one block of Girard Avenue in my neighborhood of Brewerytown, American lindens line the street. This time of year, the canopies are buzzing with activity. Honey made from the nectar of the American linden produces a choice grade of honey to boot!
On top of these trees being wonderful pollinators, other creatures find haven as well. Flower buds provide birds and deer a winter meal when the pickings are slim. The fruit, a small nut-like berry called drupe, provides small mammals a meal too. The wood, which decays easily especially in individuals older than 120 years of age, creates pockets for cavity-nesting critters like wood ducks, pileated woodpeckers, and other birds, and small mammals.
But the benefits don’t stop there. Native Americans traditionally used the tree sap for a watery drink or syrup since it contains high levels of sugar. They ate young leaves and used the cambium for bread and soups. Even the bark was widely used. Emergency bandages could be fashioned from fresh cuts of bark, or soaking and separating it created fibers necessary for rope, netting, shoes, and clothing. Today, a hot bath with linden flowers washed down with a soothing cup of linden-flower tea is said to mitigate cold symptoms and encourage a good night’s sleep. So the question remains: What can’t this tree do?