She’s As Sweet as Basswood Honey …

I think of them as “basswoods” if they are the American species and “lindens” if they are the European, but they are actually called “lime trees” more often in the United Kingdom, although they are quite unrelated to the citrus tree. They are in the genus Tilia and they were grouped into the Tiliaceae by Cronquist, the taxonomy I learned in grad school. But apparently molecular data has shown that they are in the Malvaceae or mallows, which includes cotton, okra and hibiscus, which are not exactly towering deciduous trees like the basswoods/lindens/limes.

Basswood leaves with bracts and fruit
Basswood leaves with bracts and fruit

Given all these different names for the same trees, always wondered about the etymology and finally decided to look it up. The “bass” in the American name is a corruption of bast, which sturdy fibers that run through the phloem cells along the inner bark of these trees. It was traditionally used as a fiber for weaving by various North American tribes as well as for thread to sew canoes together. You have to soak the bark for a month in an alkaline solution to get the bast to separate from the phloem and xylem. Linen, derived from flax plants, is another type of bast fibre.

Linden and lime turn out to be derived from a common root in the Old English linde, which means pliable, and also gives rise to the word lithe. Linden was originally an adjective form, like oaken, which is to say it described something that was made from the wood of the tree. (The citrus tree is native to the Middle East and the name was originally lim in Arabic.)

Teilhard de Chardin
Teilhard de Chardin

The name of the genus is simply the Latin name for the tree. In some old Protestant Bibles the species is referred to a teil or til tree, but this was largely abandoned in favor the the Anglo-Saxon-derived linde. Although not perhaps before it gave rise to the name “Teilhard.” Historically one of the uses of linden wood was to make shields, so this is perhaps an example of synecdoche producing a given name. A warrior could have been called “hard shield” (Teilhard) or “good helmet” (Wilhelm) because that was their attribute that contributed most significantly to the common good.

These trees are common in the forests of northern Europe and eastern United States, so they have been long harvested and put to a variety of uses. The wood is very light-colored—in some species it is almost white—and appears to almost lack grain. This attribute, along with the fact that it is relatively easily worked, made a block of it a common starting point for sculpture. It is not particularly strong, so when it is milled, it is often then put to use for temporary purposes, like crates and other packaging.

Basswood honey
Basswood honey

It has a significant use while it is still standing and producing flowers: it is a preferred source of monofloral honey. The flowers themselves are showy, either white or creamy and hanging in loose cymes from a flat finger-shaped bract. The flowers are perfect (contain both male and female organs) and in T. americana they appear a couple of weeks after leaf-out, which works out to be early June here in central New York.  T. chordata (small-leaved linden), a European species, is widely planted as a street tree in the United States. There are four of them in front of the building where I worked. They were flowering as recently as last week. The dried petals are still there, but small berries are forming all over the trees.

The honey is noted for its pale color and strong flavor. This is a distinct departure from the usual correlation of darker color with strong flavor in honey varieties (i.e. buckwheat honey). The aroma is said to recall balsam, camphor, or menthol and the flavor as a bite to it.


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