The Mythical, Medicinal Linden “Herb”

A tree with a storied past, linden’s herbal uses include linden flower tea, a refreshing bath, and a rinse that will soften dry skin and hair.

| Fall 2016

While some people might not think of the linden tree as an herb, I embrace the Herb Society of America’s definition of an herb that includes trees, shrubs, and other plants “valued for their flavor, fragrance, medicinal and healthful qualities, economic and industrial uses, pesticidal properties, and coloring materials.” The lovely linden herb fits that definition well.

I was no more than 6 or 7 years old when our neighbor, Mr. Heath, appeared at our door with a present. He held up a recently dug sapling, which was about a foot tall, and said, “I think you should have a linden tree in your yard, so I’ve brought you one.” My father thanked him for the present, and the two of them walked into the yard to choose a spot for the young tree. It was a scrawny, insignificant-looking little plant.

We didn’t have a plant nursery within a hundred miles of our town, so any trees to be planted in the yard were dug from the surrounding woods. I knew trees well, even then, and could identify just about all of the oaks, hickories, ashes, maples, box elders, mulberries, pecans, and willows — but I didn’t know linden.

Our spindly little linden tree seemed to barely survive, hardly growing at all over the next few years. My father threatened to cut it down several times, saying it must be stunted. But over time, the tree grew to about the size of a large pear tree, with a rounded shape and shady limbs overhanging the driveway.

I began to educate myself about the linden, or basswood, tree and learned there is a large-leaf basswood, known as American linden (Tilia americana) and littleleaf linden (Tilia cordata), which is what we had. Besides basswood, linden is known as “lime tree,” among other names. All are from the genus Tilia.

Linden is slow-growing but long-lived — some trees live 150 or up to 300 years. Today, there are almost 80 cultivated varieties sold in landscape nurseries. Linden grows across a wide range of the central and eastern United States, several related species grow in Europe, and an even larger diversity grows in Asia. Linden trees are a beneficial plant for the urban landscape. They’ll tolerate a wide range of conditions and will resist pollution that often kills or stunts other trees.

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