Bees love the blossoms of this tree, which make a medicinal tonic

Species and hybrids of linden trees have been valued for centuries as a source of medicine and a variety of tonics.

Species and hybrids of linden trees have been valued for centuries as a source of medicine and a variety of tonics.

Let’s be bees. Bees buzzing a lot. If I were like that, this is where I’d be.

I recently spent part of a sunny afternoon at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, just wandering Marion Square, right downtown. What a fun thing to do: the place was full of local Warhols and Picassos selling their masterpieces, and there were lots of vendors displaying farm produce (the market was in full bloom) as well as lots of delicious desserts.

A perfect place for wandering and browsing. Lots of well behaved dogs, even some of the children were well behaved. And of course, the botanist in all of us needs to take a look at plant life.

This is a small tree planted in Marion Square. It is one of about 40 or more different plants in the same genus, most of them found in Asia, Europe and North America. We have a number of native species here in the eastern United States; they don’t seem to come out west much.

These various species around the world, especially those in North America, are often really difficult to separate as separate species, and there has been a bit of botanical controversy to tell them apart. The problem is heightened by the rampant hybridization known to occur among many of these species, and of course, hybrids are often quite intermediate in various characteristics compared to their parents.

It is one of those plant groups in which the concept of “species” is actually a bit of a stretch; such groups may best be conceived not as separate species, but as a complex of growths all forming within the same genus. But as I say, there is little academic controversy on the subject, so let’s get back to the fun stuff.

These various species and hybrids are deciduous, most with dark green leaf blades, sometimes whitened or silvery beneath. The leaf blades are heart-shaped and stalked. Trees tend to have dense crowns and are great for creating shade.

You will know a wide street in Berlin, Unter den Linden“, with many of these trees. And, elsewhere in Germany and Europe, it is commonly seen in beer gardens, along with the ubiquitous horse chestnut trees. To be botanically honest, it turns out that our Mystery Tree (Linden, Tilia europaea) is really a hybrid.

These various species and hybrids have been valued for centuries as a source of medicine, and a variety of tonics, gargles, teas and tinctures are made from the flowers and inner bark of the stems. Various extracts continue to be used as cough medicines.

The flowers are pleasantly scented. They appear in groups at the end of a thin stem, which is attached to a narrow bract. Each flower will have five pale yellow or white petals and many stamens. Standing under the lower branches is a real pleasure: wonderful aroma!

And what must those bees be thinking? After all, flowers are loaded with pollen and sweet nectar. It should come as no (tee-hee) surprise that this is one of the best bee trees in the world.

John Nelson is retired Curator of the Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, Department of Biological Sciences. As a public service, the Herbarium provides free plant identifications. For more information, call 803-777-8175 or email johnbnelson@sc.rr.com.

This article originally appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat: Fragrant linden tree flowers make a medicinal tonic

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