My three lindens appear to be littleleaf, Tilia cordata, a species native to northern Europe. I can’t be sure, because when I bought the bare-root trees seventeen years ago they were mislabeled as honey locusts (which look completely different, although they likewise please the bees). Also known as lime trees, honey trees, and basswood, lindens come in some thirty species—from Europe, Asia, and eastern North America—and dozens of cultivars. The rangy, big-leaved American linden has fibrous inner bark (or bast, hence “basswood”), which made excellent cordage for native tribes, who also sometimes ate the mucilaginous young leaves and buds. European linden or “common lime,” T. x europaea, is believed to be a natural hybrid of T. cordata and the Eurasian bigleaf linden, T. platyphyllos. All three of these species are planted and often pollarded (cut to trunks or limb stubs) or coppiced (cut to stumps) in European cities and villages. Woodworkers love the lindens—whose English name comes from an old word meaning “flexible” or “resilient”—for their soft, evenly grained wood that doesn’t split or warp. Other people, like me, love lindens for their blossoms, perfuming the summer air with their honey-like scent and, later, opening once again in a cup of hot water.
When the rain stops—yes, it’s raining in Oregon in mid-July!—I’ll gather a bowlful of linden flowers and lay them in a shady, breezy spot to dry. As I pick, I’ll pass by the older, yellower flowers, which can be narcotic. But I won’t forget that, even when made from freshly opened flowers, linden tea has proven medical powers. It promotes sweating during fevers, loosens mucus, and helps relieve hypertension and stomach cramps. Most famously, linden tea soothes the nerves.
I like my homegrown linden tea for its mild but pleasing aroma and flavor and for the joy of watching the blossoms open before my eyes. And, on a winter’s evening— say, after a fractious community meeting—I often welcome linden’s mild sedative effect. For pleasure and as medicine, linden beats stinking chamomile hands-down.
UPDATE 2022: Long after writing this piece I found out that there is actually a plant called stinking chamomile, Anthemis cotula. It’s also called dog-fennel, possibly because it is toxic to dogs. Much to the distress of farmers ever since, Johnny Appleseed planted it wherever he wandered, thinking it a cure for malaria. Until recently, stinking chamomile was the only chamomile I knew besides pineapple weed. Much better is true chamomile, A. nobile, also known as Roman chamomile.