Identify American Basswood

Trees in the Linden Family - Tiliaceae

Basswood
American Basswood. Photo by Steve Nix

Tilia is a genus within the Linden family (Tiliacea) of about 30 species of trees, native throughout most of temperate Northern Hemisphere. The greatest species diversity of the lindens is found in Asia and the tree is only scattered in pockets throughout Europe and eastern North America. The trees are sometimes called a lime in Britain and a linden in parts of Europe and North America.

The most common name for the tree in North America is American basswood (Tilia americana) but there are several varieties with separate names.

White basswood (var. heterophylla) is found from Missouri to Alabama and eastward. Carolina basswood (var. caroliniana) is found from Oklahoma to North Carolina and south to Florida. I consider it to be the same tree to keep things simple.

The fast-growing American basswood can be largest trees of eastern and central North America. The tree will often support several trunks off its base, will prolifically sprout from stumps and is a great seeder. It is an important timber tree in the Great Lakes States and Tilia americana is the northernmost basswood species.

Basswood flowers produce an abundance of nectar from which choice honey is made. In fact, in some parts of its range basswood is known as the bee-tree and can be identified by the honey bee traffic. 

Tree Characteristics and Identification Tips

Basswood's asymmetrical and lopsided heart-shaped leaf is the largest of all broadleaf trees, nearly as wide as long at between 5 and 8 inches.

The rich green upper side of the leaf is in contrast to the underleaf's paler green to almost white.

The basswood's small greenish flowers are uniquely attached and hanging under a pale leaflike bract. The resulting seeds are in a hard, dry, hairy nutlike fruit which is quite visible during the fruiting season.

Also, take a close look at the twigs and you will see them zigzag between oval buds with one or two bud scales.

This tree should not be confused with the non-native urban basswood called littleleaf linden or Tilia cordata. The leaf of the linden is much smaller than basswood and typically a much smaller tree.

The Common North American Basswood Species

More on American basswood

  • Leaves: alternate, broadly ovate, coarsely saw-toothed, notched at base.
  • Bark: dark gray and smooth.
  • Fruit: elliptical nut-like, hard seed.

The Most Common North American Hardwood List