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.
If you have space in your landscape for a medium to large tree, linden may be perfect for you. They’re rounded to slightly conical in shape, produce dense, lovely shade, and require virtually no maintenance. The trees have few pests. Aphids and mites occasionally visit, but they do little damage.
After it was well-established, our linden would burst into bloom in early summer, filling the entire yard with a sweet, faintly chocolate-and-floral fragrance. The flowers attracted bees, which in turn made a tasty honey in neighbors’ hives. The clusters of little flowerets had inch-long propellers, and when the flowers would wilt and dry out after being pollinated by butterflies and bees, the stems would detach themselves from the tree, sending the seed pods twirling around like hundreds of tiny helicopters, their propellers causing the seeds to float gracefully away.
When I was in college, I walked to a little cafe each day to eat lunch between classes. The owner, an older Welsh woman named Peggy, stocked 101 varieties of herbal teas, all lined up in glass jars on shelves behind the lunch counter. She loved to talk about the various teas and discovered that I loved to hear about them. She taught me about the flowers from the lime tree and served a steaming teapot with my lunches. She told me that the lime tree grew in Wales, Scotland, and Great Britain. I immediately recognized the flowers from the same type of linden tree that grew in my parents’ yard.
Peggy told me about linden folklore across Europe. One Celtic tale said that sitting under a linden tree would cure you of epilepsy. People also considered linden the “tree of lovers” — a couple sitting under the tree would be in love forever. The wood was known to provide protection against both the evil eye and lightning. The Slavs planted linden close to churches and homes — they believed lightning wouldn’t strike the linden tree, so people hid underneath it during thunderstorms.
I also learned from Peggy that not only do the flowers make a very pleasing tea, but they’re also used medicinally. In her native country, people historically brewed tea from the flowers to induce sweating, to help fevers and colds, and to reduce nasal congestion. They used the tea to relieve throat irritations and coughing. Her mother often made a lotion from the flowers to treat itchy skin in winter.
Linden flowers are the most commonly used part of the plant, but both the leaves and flowers are used medicinally. Historically, the leaves were eaten raw to promote sweating and reduce fevers, but the tea is certainly more pleasant-tasting. Essential oil produced from the flowers is a popular ingredient in perfumes and bath preparations.
Linden flower tea is relaxing and best enjoyed before bedtime or in the afternoon before a nap. Precautions about use by expectant mothers vary, but I suggest erring on the side of caution and not drinking this tea while pregnant. Otherwise, reliable medical websites offer no cautions for adults, the elderly, or children. The tea has a long history in many cultures of helping with anxiety.
The strained flowers from any of the following uses are a good addition to your compost pile.
If you don’t have your own linden tree, you can find dried linden flowers in most health food stores and at online herbal apothecaries. Most linden you’ll find in stores will likely be labeled, “linden flowers and leaves,” though it will not actually be the leaves but the still-attached propellers that are included.
Fresh linden flower tea. Pick fresh linden flowers in late spring, when the flowers are most fragrant. Boil water for tea and place 3 or 4 linden flowers in a pot, pour boiling water over them, cover, and let steep for 10 minutes. Strain and serve hot, with honey, if desired.
Dried linden flower tea. Boil water for tea. In a teapot, place about 2 heaping teaspoons of dried linden flowers for each cup of tea. Pour boiling water over them, cover, and let steep for about 5 minutes. Strain and serve hot or pour over ice. Sweeten as desired.
Relaxing bath. For a relaxing bath, bring about 5 cups of water to a boil, then pour it over 2 cups of fresh or dried linden flowers, cover, and let steep for 30 minutes. Strain out and discard the flowers, and add this strong tea into the bath. Or, use it on a washcloth to rinse off the skin. It will relieve irritation and inflammation, will act as an astringent, and will moisturize dry skin.
Hair rinse. For a refreshing hair rinse, bring 2 cups of water to a boil, pour water over a tablespoon of fresh or dried linden flowers, and let steep for 30 minutes. Then, strain out the flowers.
To use: After shampooing and rinsing, pour a cup of the liquid through hair and dry as normal. Linden flowers will leave hair soft and fragrant.
How to Harvest Linden Flowers
You can easily pick the flowers by hand, leaving the little propellers attached. Collect flowers into a basket or pan. I spread a sheet beneath the tree and drop the blossoms onto it. The flowers are ready to use directly from the tree for tea or in the bath. Spread them on newspapers, on drying screens, or place them in a food dehydrator, and they should be dry and crumbly in 3 to 5 days. When they’re completely dry, put them in an airtight container and keep in a pantry or a dark place away from sunlight. They’ll easily keep for a year when stored that way.
Some of the cultivated varieties in nurseries grow faster than the older, native ones. American ‘Sentry’ (Tilia americana) is a large, fast-growing linden with a conical shape.
‘Glenleven’ (Tilia x flavescens) is a cross between American and littleleaf linden and is a fast-growing tree with a straight trunk and a pyramidal shape.
‘Greenspire’ littleleaf linden (T. cordata) is pyramidal in shape and highly adaptable, even growing well in the narrow space between sidewalk and street. The limbs don’t break easily in the wind, and besides their beautiful, fragrant flowers, these under-appreciated trees offer brilliant yellow leaves during fall.
Jim Long is a professional gardener and author of a number of books on gardening. He writes for several gardening publications and has appeared on television shows. He speaks regularly at festivals, conferences, and garden shows nationwide. You can find his books and see his garden at www.LongCreekHerbs.com.