Wilderness Underfoot: The basswood tree

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-119203986724101.jpg’, ”, ‘The basswood tree (or American linden) – Tilia americana is sometimes called a “bee tree” because the nectar of its flowers is so relished by honeybees. Leaves of this tree can grow quite large, sometimes reaching 8 inches across. The basswood is common in North America east of the Rockies, but it is less abundant north of the Great Lakes. In early summer, its fragrant flowers emerge from stalks hanging off leaflike bracts. The flowers attract bees, moths and other nectar-loving insects. Honey created by bees that drink the nectar of basswood flowers is very light in color and said to have a mildly biting, floral or mint flavor. Because the flowers only last a few weeks, basswood honey is not as widely available as other honey flavors‘);

The basswood tree has been highly valued on this continent since Native Americans first used its fibrous inner bark to make rope, mats, fish nets and baskets. They tapped the tree’s slightly sweet sap as a drink, and boiled it into a syrup. And young basswood leaves were eaten raw or cooked.

Today, the fine, white wood of the basswood tree is especially prized for carving and turning. Where it lacks in color and pattern, it makes up with its soft, lightweight, and fine-grained texture. It’s an excellent craft and hobby wood, with some economic use in wooden window blinds and shutters, wood flooring, guitar bodies and drum shells, cabinetry and boxes.

In its natural forest habitat, the basswood tree plays a vital role. The nectar of its flowers feeds insects, including honeybees. Its tiny fruit and seeds are eaten by birds and small mammals. Its saplings feed birds and mammals during the winter. And in the autumn, when other deciduous trees tend to draw nutrients out of their leaves to store in their trunks and roots over winter, the basswood tree allows nutrients to remain in leaves. The leaves fall to the forest floor and decompose, greatly enriching forest soils with nitrogen, calcium, potassium, magnesium and other nutrients.

As the tree ages, hollows within its trunk and branches will shelter owls, squirrels, bats and other creatures.

Basswood trees grow best in fine forest soils with plenty of moisture, on slopes and in coves, and near rivers. They’re tolerant of shade, although reduced sunlight will slow their growth. With enough sun, these trees can reach 130 feet in height. Usually, they range about 90 to 100 feet.

Basswoods have relatively thin bark, and are easily damaged by fire. However, they are among the first trees to re-emerge after a forest fire, because of their inclination to sprout new saplings from roots, even if the tree has been burned down to a stump.

Basswoods are not particularly long-lived. An individual tree may survive between 100 and 150 years. They’re widely planted as shade and street trees.­

.from the Oct. 10, 2007, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!