Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 422-A   June 5, 1971
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

The American Basswood or Linden, of all our native trees, is the last to bloom. In June or early July its clusters of small cream-colored 5- petaled flowers are 80 fragrant that they attract myriads of bees. The honey from this nectar has a delicious flavor, and tea made of the flowers is pleasant to drink. These clusters are peculiar, being oddly branched with the main stem attached to a narrow leaflike blade which is fastened at its end to a twig. The round pea-sized woody fruits which follow the flowers have seeds that are edible and, mashed or ground, can be used to make a beverage tasting something like cocoa.

This species, common in the northeast one-quarter of the United States and adjacent Canada, is easily identified Its dull dark-green leaves, with coarse teeth along the margins, are 5 or 6 inches long, almost as wide, and heart-shaped but usually lopsided It has the habit of sending up numerous vigorous sprouts from the base of its trunk. The thin bark on young trees is smooth and gray but that of old trees is furrowed into narrow flat ridges with horizontal cracks. It is a favorite of the yellow- bellied sapsucker and on many trees we find row after row, all horizontal, of holes drilled by these birds. The smaller leaves of the White or Silver Basswood, a southern species, are silvery and very hairy on the underside. Other kinds are so nearly alike that experts become confused.

The basswood is a fast-growing tree, especially on fertile lowlands, and in the Ohio valley there were some more than 4 feet in diameter and 140 feet tall. Ordinarily they become from 50 to 90 feet high, with a compact symmetrical crown and slightly drooping lower branches. If injured at the base by fire or other cause, a basswood often becomes hollow from heart rot that extends upward until the tree is so weakened it may be blown over by a wind storm, but it has been extensively planted as a shade and street tree.

The European Linden, for which Berlin' s famous boulevard. Under den Linden, was named, has also been planted in this country. Known in England as the Lime tree, this species attained enormous size in a few famous locations and illustrates the complex source of our language. Linden originated from "lind", meaning flexible, which also became "line" and eventually "Lime". Basswood was originally "bastwood" and bast, like "baste", came from an ancient word meaning "to sew " . So there you are .

Basswood was a major source of fiber for prehistoric peoples and many tribes of American Indians. Women gathered long strips of bark from sprouts and saplings, peeled off the outer bark with their teeth and used the inner bark or bast. Usually it was soaked in water for two or more weeks and this "retting" process could be hurried by pounding the bast or by simmering it in vessels with wood ashes added to the water. The long soft fibers were twisted into cords and ropes for innumerable purposes: bags and mats; fishing lines and nets; sewing garments and the edges of cattail mats; sewing birch bark together to make canoes or containers such as those for storing maple syrup and sugar; tying the pole framework for wigwams and lodges; fastening on the mats of bark or skins or cattails to cover such shelters; etc.

The wood, white or creamy tan in color, is very light and soft but tough. Thin strips can be bent, dry, to make baskets, chair seats, and the honeycomb sections for beehives. It is widely used for woodenware, toys, barrel heads, boxes, crates, guitars and zithers, veneer and excelsior. It has proved especially valuable for artificial limbs. The Indians made grotesque masks of basswood because it is ideal for carving. We used to call it "whittlin'wood".

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