What's Not to Love About the Linden Tree?
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Q: The Linden is a beautiful tree. (Berliners in Germany sure love it!) A couple of gorgeous specimens are at the library in Swarthmore, PA. Why is the Linden not used more? And why is it rarely encountered in local nurseries?
---John in Doylestown, PA
A. The linden is a fascinating tree. All lindens are slow growers but eventually get very big; the main species tops out at 130 feet—which may be one reason you don't see it in a lot of home landscapes. But several (most, really) websites I consulted highly recommend it as a great tree for public spaces and other areas that can accommodate its final, full size. It's deciduous—dropping its leaves in the fall—and said to be an amazing shade tree in the summer.
And no surprise that it's really popular in Germany. It's a very well-known tree in Europe, where they have several lindens with quite a history. There's a grove at an arboretum in the UK that's estimated to be two thousand years old; in Germany there's a famous Linden planted a thousand years ago by the wife of Henry the Second; and a seven-hundred-year-old Linden is said to be "The thickest tree in Slovenia".
(Thicker than me? No way to tell; I've never been to Slovenia…)
Anyway, the native American linden is the really big one that's recommended mostly for parks and arboretums. Some sources say that the European linden tops out at 70 feet; others say 100, which is still pretty big. The one that's most recommended for American homeowners is the little-leaf linden, which is not a small tree, but it has smaller leaves that are much more attractive and ornamental. And there are several named cultivars of little-leaf linden that have special attributes, like especially heavy flowering.
I know; that's the last thing any of us with tree pollen allergies need this Spring. But one of the really remarkable things about the linden is that its insect pollinated, specifically by bees, so it doesn't affect the allergic. In the summer, the trees are covered with beautiful heavily-scented yellow flowers that draw lots of native bees and honey bees. In fact, beekeepers love the trees because linden pollen is said to produce really superior honey.
So it's a great shade tree that doesn't trigger pollen allergies, has pretty leaves, beautiful heavily-scented flowers in the summer, and is a haven for pollinators. It also has blazing yellow fall color. And, of course, the bigger the tree, the more leaves it'll drop for mulch and compost making, so in many ways it's a great Permaculture addition to an organic landscape.
So: Are there any drawbacks other than the final size?
Yes. It's said to be a favorite target of aphids. So much so that sources warn against using it in parking lots because of the sticky soot-like 'honeydew' the aphids excrete that would drip down onto the cars. Out in an open landscape, this wouldn't be a problem.
And Tom Ball, a nursery owner I consulted (he owns my local nursery, Herbein's in Emmaus, PA), added that it can be a target of Japanese beetles as well. Sources confirm this, but add that the linden is a tough tree that can be completely defoliated and still green up perfectly the next Spring. In fact, its so tough and so resistant to environmental stresses that it's been described as the perfect urban tree—the only drawbacks being the final size, which takes quite awhile to reach, and those pesky messy aphids.
Back to Tom, who is an excellent tree guy. He told me he has lindens in stock and often recommends them but adds that people generally buy trees that are looking especially good in the landscape at that moment in time--like Spring blooming trees right now.
He says he's selling lots of flowering cherries, because people see them in bloom and want them. This has also been a great spring for magnolias in our area—they didn't get hit with a late frost and are blooming magnificently, and that's influencing lots of people to plant them. I asked him about redbuds, which I thought might be a hot tree, and he said the same thing—as soon as they hit peak bloom in the region, people came in to buy them.
Any other popular ones?
Tom says that trees with great fall color sell in the Spring and in the Fall. No surprise that Japanese maples—especially cultivars of Japanese red maple—are the most popular with homeowners by far.
But Tom did have one big surprise for me: he said there's a lot of demand for a deciduous tree called Japanese zelkova. Tom explains that it looks and behaves much like the beloved but long lost American elm, but is resistant to the disease that wiped those precious trees out.