American basswood

Tilia americana
Family: Malvaceae

Natural Historyamerican basswood branch
Leaves, bracts, and fruits of American basswood
Photo credit: Larry Korhnak, University of Florida

Also known as "American linden," basswood is a desirable ornamental tree known for its fast growth and longevity. The tree frequently has two or more trunks and vigorously sprouts from stumps as well as seed. The long-stalked, heart-shaped leaves provide abundant shade to urban streets and sidewalks. Basswood leaves are similar to those of red mulberry (Morus rubra). The trees can be distinguished by pulling a leaf off the tree. Red mulberry leaves have a milky sap that is visible when the petiole, or leaf stalk, is pulled from the twig. Basswood sap is clear. Red mulberry leaves also have a coarse upper surface. When you rub the upper surface, you can feel a rough sandpaper-like leaf. Without physical investigation of the leaves, red mulberry could easily be mistaken for basswood.

Habitat & Range

American basswood occurs from the most northern to the most southern portions of the eastern United States and as far west as North Dakota. Basswood can grow in sites ranging from nutrient-poor, rocky ridges as high as 4,900 feet in elevation to well-drained low woodlands, growing best in hardwood hammocks and moist, well-drained, loamy (fine-textured) soils of river floodplains and wetland areas.

Wildlife Use

Bees are especially attracted to the fragrant flowers. They make a delicious honey from the flowers that is considered a delicacy by beekeepers and honey connoisseurs.  The seeds and twigs are eaten by wildlife.

Human Use

Native Americans made thread and tangle-free rope from the inner bark and even stitched wounds with the thread. The Iroquois used the sapwood to carve elaborate masks. Basswood has become a desirable wood for carving artifacts, musical instruments, and hunting decoys. Today, we still use the excellent quality wood to make mats, fishnets, cords, coarse cloths, and shoes. Products made from the soft, pale, lightweight, and straight-grained wood include wooden dishware, cabinets, paper, drawing boards, furniture, plywood, interior trim, and piano soundboards. It is commonly planted as a shade tree in urban areas.


 

Identifying Characteristics

Size/Form: Basswood is a medium to large tree that measures 60' to 125' tall. It has a spreading crown and long, clear, somewhat buttressed bole as well as a spreading root system. The old stumps will prolifically regenerate sprouts. If allowed to, they result in clumps of several trees.
Leaves: The leaves are simple, alternate, and deciduous. Leaves are variable in size and shape, but mostly oval-shaped or heart-shaped with an acute apex and unequal base 3 to 5 ½ inches long and 2 to 3 inches wide. The leaf margin is finely serrated. The upper surface is smooth and dark green, while the lower surface is paler, often with whitish, grayish, tan or brown pubescence that can be partial or total. Petioles are ¼ to ½ the length of the leaf blades.
Twigs: The twigs are slender, sometimes zig-zagging, pubescent at first, becoming glabrous. The pith is white and homogenous.
Bark: The grayish-brown bark has shallow vertical furrows between thick ridges that deepen with age.
Flowers: The cream-colored flowers dangle in clusters on drooping, pubescent stalks from the middle of a leafy bract. They bloom in May and June.
Fruit: The round, hard, and dry nut-like fruit is about ¼ to ½ inches in diameter, usually bearing 2 seeds. The fruits resemble small peas in loose clusters attached by a stalk hanging from a leafy bract
Similar Trees on the Florida 4-H Forest Ecology Contest List:
  • Red Mulberry has alternate, simple leaves that are very similar to basswood in shape, size, and margin. In the absence of flowers or fruit, telling those trees apart requires close attention to the color, texture, and pubescence of the leaves.
  • The leaves of Eastern Cottonwood have a similar shape (and the tree has a similar name) but the margin is wavy.
  • The leaves of Chinese Tallow can have a similar shape, but they're much smaller and the margin is smooth.

 

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