|Linden leaves, flowers, fruit, twig and seed. From Trees of Northeastern United States, Native and Naturalized, by H.P. Brown, Ph.D., The Christopher Publishing House, Boston, 1938.|
by Deb Soule
In southern Maine, linden trees begin blooming in late June. Their sweet fragrance invites thousands of honeybees to feed upon the abundant nectar that the yellowish-green blossoms produce. Linden, also known as American basswood (Tilia americana), can be found scattered throughout Maine. New England landscapers commonly plant European linden (Tilia europaea) and little-leaf linden (T. cordata) for shade trees. (Baxter Boulevard in Portland is lined with both species.) Tilia europaea and T. cordata are shorter and contain smaller leaves than our native species, which grows to a height of 50 to 70 feet and a diameter of 2 to 3 feet.
The genus Tilia encompasses about 30 species of trees, native throughout most of the temperate Northern Hemisphere, in Asia (where the greatest species diversity is found), Europe and eastern North America. In most herb books, linden is listed in the Tiliacea family. However, genetic research has more recently incorporated the Tiliacea family into the Malvaceae family.
American basswood leaves are 5 to 6 inches long, heart-shaped, toothed, and dark green on the upper surface. Young leaves tend to be hairy. The five petals of each flower grow to be 7 to 12 mm long and are found at the base of a slender stalk, which is attached to a long, narrow, yellowish, leaf-like bract. The hard, woody, round fruit, containing one or two seeds, is covered with short, brown hairs, and is approximately the size of a pea. These fruits remain attached to the leaf-like bract, aiding the wind in carrying the seeds as they drop. The bark of old trees is deeply furrowed, while that of young trees is smooth or slightly fissured and grey.
In her book Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes, Charlotte Erichsen-Brown tells how several Native American tribes relied heavily on the inner bark of linden for cordage, basketry, mats and many other utilitarian objects. The wood continues to be appreciated by various artists, including wood carvers and furniture makers, as it is soft and easily worked.
I first met a row of Linden trees while they were in full bloom, lining the dirt drive of an old farm in southern Maine. I stood mesmerized by the loud and ceaseless sound of honeybees frantically collecting the nectar. The air was truly thick with the sweet fragrance of linden flowers. This hedgerow of 50-foot-tall trees made a cool, shady canopy that was lovely to rest under during the heat of June and July.
Farmers, gardeners and herbalists will benefit from planting native and European lindens. Linden can be propagated by seed, cuttings, young saplings (available through Fedco Trees and other nurseries) or by grafting (for cultivars). A hedgerow of lindens on the windward side of an orchard offers excellent protection for young trees and attracts pollinators once the trees produce flowers. The Fedco Trees catalog says that linden prefers deep, rich, moist soils, but will grow in dry, heavier, alkaline soils, in full sun or partial shade. The catalog adds that T. americana is sensitive to salt and pollution, grows from New Brunswick south to Virginia, and may live up to 900 years.
Linden flowers are gathered by climbing a ladder or, better yet, by keeping some trees pruned for easier flower collecting. The flowers and leaf bracts dry quickly and store well in glass, airtight jars.
You can make a tincture from fresh or dried flowers and leaves. Collect the flowers when they first open and in the early morning, when the air is still fresh and cool and the flowers are fragrant. The famous European herbalist Juliette de Bairacli Levy always taught that the medicine of flowers is stronger when the flowers are collected before too many bees have visited them.
I enjoyed my first cup of linden flower tea while visiting friends in England, where it is called lime blossom. In Europe the flowers are commonly used as a beverage tea alone or combined with chamomile and honey. A warm cup of linden and chamomile flower tea helps reduce irritation and restlessness and promotes a restful sleep. The sweet, delicate aroma and flavor of the flowers creates a relaxing and pleasant tasting tea. A hot tea, made with linden, elder flowers and chamomile, acts as a diaphoretic (inducing perspiration), lowers a fever and helps resolve a cold or flu. Even linden flowers alone, along with bed rest, can be extremely helpful for children and elders with fevers and influenza. Consider using the tea for easing a swollen, red sore throat, laryngitis, and a dry cough where thirst and irritability are also present.
Linden is highly regarded as a relaxing remedy, easing nervous tension and stress. British Herbalist David Hoffman writes about Tilia europaea: “It has a reputation as a prophylactic against the development of arteriosclerosis and hypertension. It is considered to be a specific in the treatment of raised blood pressure associated with arteriosclerosis and nervous tension. Its relaxing action combined with a general effect upon the circulatory system give Linden a role in the treatment of some forms of migraine. “
European herbalists generally value the linden flower for its restorative effect on blood vessel walls. “There is a persistent reputation for it helping with cases of arteriosclerosis (like the horse chestnut, that shares a similar saponin). Modern practice has also seen its potential in the treatment of other disorders of the vasculature: varicose veins, phlebitis, and auto-immunological attacks on the vessel walls, such as arteritis.” (Out of The Earth, by Simon Mills)
Linden flower and rose petal tea can help calm a person’s spirit and reduce nervous tension and unrest, headaches, mild palpitations and shortness of breath. In Traditional Chinese Medicine these symptoms are considered to be a constraint of the heart chi or liver yang rising. If symptoms persist, seek a holistically minded health care professional. Warm baths with a tea or with pure essential oils of linden, lavender and rose are also deeply relaxing and restore one’s spirit.
As when using any new herb, try it alone and in small doses first. No contraindications are known for linden flowers, although there is always a chance a person can have an allergic reaction to a plant.
Consider planting a row of linden trees for the bees and for herbalists who may be looking for local sources of flowers and leaves. At Avena Botanicals, we are finding it harder to obtain certified organic linden, domestic or European. The Chinese appear to be growing linden for the international market, crowding out the once available European linden. If you live in an urban setting or want to plant a hedgerow along a road or drive, consider planting the T. europaea or T. cordata species. The more hardy, nectar producing perennial trees and shrubs we can plant, the happier and healthier our pollinator friends and our planet will be.
About the author: Deb is the founder of Avena Botanicals and the Avena Institute in West Rockport, Maine, and author of A Woman’s Book of Herbs. You can visit her Web site at www.avenaherbs.com. This article is for information only; please consult a health care practitioner if you have a serious medical problem.