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Trees - The Lindens, Or Basswoods

( Originally Published 1927 )



This tropical family, with about thirty-five genera, has a single tree genus, tilia, in North America. This genus has eighteen or twenty species, all told, with representatives in all temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, with the exception of Central America, Central Asia, and the Himalayas.

Tilia wood is soft, pale-colored, light, of even grain, adaptable for wood-carving, sounding-boards of pianos, woodenwares of all kinds, and for the manufacture of paper. The inner bark is tough and fibrous. It has been used since the human race was young, in the making of ropes, fish nets, and like necessities. It was a favorite tying material in nurseries and greenhouses until the more adaptable raffia came in to take its place. The bark of young trees is stripped in spring to make the shoes of the Russian peasantry. An infusion of basswood flowers has long been a home remedy for indigestion, nervousness, coughs, and hoarseness. Experiments in Germany have successfully extracted a table oil from the seed-balls. A nutritious paste resembling chocolate has been made from its nuts, which are delicious when fresh. In winter the buds, as well as the tiny nuts, stand between the lost trap-per and starvation. The flowers yield large quantities of nectar, and honey made near linden forests is unsurpassed in delicacy of flavor.

About the time of Louis XIV, the French fashion arose of planting avenues to lindens, where horse-chestnuts had formerly been the favorite tree. The fashion spread to England of bordering with "lime trees" approaches to the homes of the gentry. "Pleached alleys" were made with these fast-growing trees that submitted so successfully to severe pruning and training. All sorts of grotesque figures were carved out of the growing lime trees in the days before topiary work in gardens submitted to the rules of landscape art, and slower growing trees were chosen for such purposes.

In cultivation, lindens have the virtues of swift growth, superb framework, clean, smooth bark, and late, profuse, beautiful and fragrant bloom, which is followed by interesting seed clusters, winged with a pale blade that lightens the foliage mass. One fault is the early dropping of the leaves, which are usually marred by the wind soon after they reach mature size. Propagation is easy from cuttings and from seed.

The American Linden, or Basswood

Tilia Americana, Linn.

The American linden or basswood is a stately spreading tree reaching one hundred and twenty feet in height and a trunk diameter of four feet. The bark is brown, furrowed, and scaly, the branches gray and smooth, the twigs ruddy. The alternate leaves are obliquely heart-shaped, saw-toothed, with prominent veins that branch at the base, only on the side next to the petiole. (See illustration, page 86.) Occasionally the leaf blades are eight inches long. A dense shade is cast by a linden tree in midsummer.

The blossoms, cream-white and clustered on pale green, leaf-like blades, open by hundreds in June and July, actually dripping with nectar, and illuminating the plat-forms of green leaves. A bird flying overhead looks down upon a tree covered with broad leaf blades overlapping like shingles on a roof. It must look underneath to see the flowers that delight us as we look up into the tree-top from our station on the ground.

In midsummer the linden foliage becomes coarse and wind-whipped; the soft leaf-substance is attacked by insects that feed upon it; plant lice deface them with patches of honey-dew, and the sticky surfaces catch dust and soot. Riddled and torn, they drop in desultory fashion, their faded yellow not at all like the satisfying gold of beech and hickory leaves.

The flight of basswood seeds on their wing-like blades goes on throughout the winter. This alone would account for the fact that basswoods greatly outnumbered all other trees in the virgin forests of the Ohio Valley. The seeds are not the tree's sole dependence. Suckers grow up about the stump of a tree the lumberman has taken, or the lightning has stricken. Any twig is likely to strike root, and any cutting made from a root as well.

The finest specimen I know grew from a walking-stick cut in the woods and thrust into the ground, by a mere chance, when the rambler reached home. It is the roof tree of a mansion, tall enough to waft its fragrance into the third-story windows, and to reach high above the chimney pots.

The range of this tree extends from New Brunswick to Dakota and south to Virginia and Texas. Its wood is used for carriage bodies, furniture, cooperage, paper pulp, charcoal, and fuel.

The Bee Tree, or White Basswood

T. heterophylla, Vent.

The bee tree or white basswood of the South has narrower leaves than the species just described, and they vary in form and size; but always have linings of fine, silvery down, and the fruits are fuzzy. A wonderful, dazzling play of white, pale green, and deeper shades is seen when one of these trees flutters its leaf mass against a background, sombre with hemlocks and an undergrowth of rhododendron. The favorite haunts of this species are the sides of mountain streams. Wild bees store their hoard of honey in the hollow trunks of old trees; and it is the favorite holiday of many country folk to locate these natural hives and despoil them. In order to do this the tree must come down, and the revenge of the outraged swarm is sometimes a high price to pay for the stolen sweets.

This linden is found from Ithaca, New York, southward along the Appalachian Mountains to northern Alabama, and westward into Illinois and Tennessee. It is best and most abundant in the mountains of eastern Tennessee and North Carolina, at a considerable altitude.

The Downy Basswood

T. pubescens, Ait.

The downy basswood has leaves that are green on both sides, but its young shoots and Ieaf-linings are coated with rusty hairs. It is a miniature throughout of the American basswood, except that the blade that bears the flower-cluster is rounded at its base, while the others taper narrowly to the short stem. This species occurs on Long Island, and is sparingly seen along the coast from the Carolinas to Texas.

The Common Lime

T. vulgaris

"Unter den Linden," the famous avenue in Berlin, is planted with the small-leaved common lime of Europe, be-side which the American basswood is a coarse-looking tree. Very disappointing docked trees they are, along this thoroughfare; for city streets are never places where a tree can reach its best estate. In the rural sections of France and Germany this tree reaches noble stature and great age.

Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, had his name from a fine linden tree, when his peasant father rose to the dignity of a surname. "Linn" is the Swedish word for linden. "Carl Linne," meaning "Charles of the linden tree," it was at first when he played as a boy in the shadow of its great branches. "Carolus Linnaeus" he became when he was appointed professor of the university at Upsala, and through all time since.

Gerarde discourses quaintly upon the linden tree in his "Grete Herball" published in England in 1597. "The male tree," he says, "is to me unknown." We smile at his notion that there are male and female trees in this family, but we wonder at the accuracy of observation evinced by one who lived and wrote before the science of botany had any existence. Evidently Master Gerarde had a good pair of eyes, and he has well expressed the things he saw. I quote a paragraph:

"The female line, or linden tree waxeth very great and thicke, spreading forth its branches wide and fare abroad, being a tree which yieldeth a most pleasant shadow, under and within whose boughs may be made brave summer houses and banqueting arbors, because the more that it is surcharged with weight of timber and such like, the better it doth flourish. The bark is brownish, very smooth and plaine on the outside, but that which is next to the timber is white, moist and tough, serving very well for ropes, trases and halters. The timber is whitish, plaine, and without knots; yea, very soft and gentle in the cutting and handling. The leaves are smooth, green, shining and large, somewhat snipt or toothed about the edges: the floures are little, whitish, of a good savour, and very many in number; growing clustered together from out of the middle of the leaf : out of which proceedeth a small whitish long narrow leafe: after the floures succeed cornered sharp pointed nuts, of the bignesse of hasell nuts. This tree seemeth to be a kinde of elme, and the people of Essex (whereas great plenty groweth by the waysides) do call it broad-leafed elme."



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