Linden is a common street tree with some remarkable healing properties. Its flowers are relaxing and uplifting, like a warm glow of sunshine - and they taste quite pleasant! In this article we'll share with you more about this wonderful tree, in hopes that you may go out and find it yourself to pick some flowers or just to sit under and bask in its comforting fragrance.
"Tilia" is a genus of about 30 trees in the Malvaceae plant family. In Europe, trees in this genus often have "linden" in their common name, while in the northeast U.S. the common native species, Tilia americana, is often called basswood (though also called "American linden" at times). The species most commonly used for its medicinal effects is "littleaf linden" (Tilia cordata), a tree native to Europe.
Trees in the Tilia genus are found throughout the eastern portion of North America, Europe and Asia at moderate altitudes; they are usually not quite as low as sea level but they are also not in the mountains. The Champlain Valley provides a great ecosystem for these trees.
There are several species of linden which are common street trees in Burlington, including “littleleaf linden” (the most medicinal) along with “silver linden” (Tilia tomentosa). All of the lindens in our area likely have similar medicinal effects but differing potencies.
One way for herbalists to explain a plant's properties is the “doctrine of signatures” which looks at the shapes, colors and other visual characteristics of a plant to find correlations with its medicinal uses. For example, linden’s heart-shaped leaves are indicative of its ability to “gladden the heart” – uplifting the mood as well as physically helping the heart by gently lowering blood pressure and expanding blood vessels. These actions, in part due to linden’s aromatic volatile oils, may also relieve headaches and muscle tension.
When we drink linden tea, eat a linden flower, or even smell linden’s aroma dancing through the air, our parasympathetic nervous system becomes activated, putting us into “rest and digest” mode. This is in part because the volatile oils present in the linden flower act as a nervine relaxant, telling the body that everything is safe. Being in this state allows the body to regenerate; blood pressure lowers, breathing deepens, immunity improves, and uplifting peacefulness is created.
Linden has a cooling and moistening energy, perfect for a hot summers day, and gentle enough for every body – children and adults alike.
These are the terms herbalists use to describe linden's effects:
In the Malvaceae family, Tilias are related to okra, cotton, cacao, marshmallow and hibiscus!
The oldest known linden tree is said to be more than 2,000 years old. It lives in Gloucestershire, England.
Tolerant of urban pollution and extremes in temperature and precipitation, linden trees thrive throughout the streets of Burlington. Favored for its lush shade and aromatic fragrance wafting through the air, it is a favorite among Vermont summer dwellers. The trees can reach up to at least 130 feet tall, towering over us as we walk, blessing us with their shade and sweet smells, reminding us that nature is all around us even when we are surrounded by concrete.
Each species listed below has similar foliage with some differences in leaf color and shape. All species have characteristic light green ribbon-like “bracts” that expand from the center of the leaf, connecting a cluster of tiny yellow-white flowers with long stamens projecting out beyond each flower. These bracts are one of the key identifiers for linden. The flowers remind me of little fairy gowns, blooming for only a few short weeks between end of June and early July, before turning into fruit that looks like a cluster of little green peas.
American Linden/American Basswood (Tilia americana)
Identification: Asymmetrical, long, heart shaped, deep green, non-serrated leaves.
Habitat: Found wild in sugar maple-basswood forests throughout the northeastern United States and southern Quebec, Canada.
Medicinal uses: The flowers are not as fragrant, so may be less potent, but may have similar effects to the more commonly used species.
Silver Linden (Tilia tomentosa)
Identification: Non-serrated leaves are often asymmetrical, heart shaped, deep green with silver backs unique to the silver linden species.
Habitat: A common street tree in Burlington. Found throughout Europe, eastern North America and Asia.
Medicinal uses: May have similar medicinal properties to littleleaf linden.
Littleleaf Linden (Tilia cordata)
Identification: Distinctly heart shaped, serrated, deep green, asymmetrical leaves.
Habitat: Another common street tree. Found throughout Europe and North America.
Medicinal uses: This is the species used most commonly, and is typically what's found in commerce. It likely contains the most concentrated medicinal properties of all linden species.
When harvesting from this tree first make sure that you've identified it correctly by checking more than one credible source. Secondly, only harvest away from polluted areas - it is a common street tree, but we would not suggest harvesting it from a busy road. Quiet, low-traffic roads may be ok, but even better would be a yard or another area further removed from cars.
We harvest the flowers along with the bracts (the light-green leafy bit attached to the flower stalks). Abiding by the honorable harvest, we harvest 10% of the flowers that we see, leaving the rest for our pollinator friends to continue the tree’s life cycle.
Harvest before they've turned brown, as the older, brown flowers have been said to have more narcotic-like effects.
We stretch our arms up to clasp a flower, a handful of sun ray, reaching up into our full, expansive selves.
You can dry the flowers at home by leaving them in on a screen or a brown paper bag in a dark, dry, well-ventilated location. Once dried, linden is delightful in tea, as a hot infusion, and even as a cold infusion.
A cold infusion can be made with both dry and fresh linden flowers by pouring cold water over the flowers and letting it steep for 12-24 hours.
A sun tea can also be made this way, in a lot less time. On a hot summers day, place a generous handful of flowers in a glass container, pour cold to lukewarm water over the flowers and place in a sunny spot to steep for the afternoon.
Linden also makes a tasty homemade tincture.
Thanks for reading, and hope you can spend some time with this lovely tree!
n.d. “Species: Tilia americana.” Accessed on 3 Jul, 2018. Fire Effects Information System (FEIS), 2018. Retrieved from: <https://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/tree/tilame/all.html>
Justis, Angela. (1 Jun, 2016). “A Family Herb: Gentle Linden Flower and Leaf.” The Herbal Academy, 2018. Accessed on 3 Jul, 2018. Retrieved from: <https://theherbalacademy.com/a-family-herb-linden-flower/>
Written by Jordan Kleiman, University of Vermont student and apprentice at Railyard Apothecary, and Nick Cavanaugh, staff member at Railyard Apothecary and clinical herbalist at the Burlington Herb Clinic.
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