Foraging Lime trees, for food and medicine
Tilia cordata / T. Platyphyllus / T.vulgaris
(small-leaved lime / large-leaved lime / common lime)
Lime / Linden
What’s not to love about foraging Lime trees? One of the highlights of my year is spring when I go foraging for lime trees in blossom.
These highly productive and valuable plants offer a number of yields, and their edible and medicinal interest continues through all the seasons. If you have some land, these trees are well worth designing into a forest garden, even small ones. If you don’t have land, you will want to go foraging lime trees after reading this.
They offer us 5 different edible plant parts that I know of, and a powerful, yet gentle, central nervous system relaxant remedy. Limes respond well to coppicing or pollarding, and provide material for a number of other uses.
The plants in the genus Tilia are the only Northern temperate-zone examples of a mostly tropical family. These particular species under discussion have evolved all over the British Isles, except in North Scotland. The genus contains approximately 20-40 or so species, depending on the book you read.
Most of us now know these trees as ‘Lime’ – a name derived from the old English word ‘lind’, more recently ‘linden‘. They are not related to the citrus-bearing fruit trees, and neither smell of limes or produce lime-flavoured fruit, which just goes to show that common names, especially current ones, can be blind logical steps up alleyways of confusion. In North America, these plants are known as ‘Basswoods‘.
When found in a suitable site, and no matter whether this be town or country, lime trees, where left to their own devices, will eventually come to display graceful form.
This is especially notable as a winter silhouette, at a time of year when it seems that deciduous trees bear their souls.
For all their inherent beauty and virtues, lime trees are also a major scorn of unwitting car drivers who park under it. Just like under a Sycamore, the lime encourages aphid colonies, which delight to feed on its rich sugary leaves.
The result after even only a few hours parked under a lime during May and June will be a splattering of what is essentially a sugar syrup. This sticky and acidic aphid ‘honeydew’ dripping onto a car can seriously mess up your paint job over the course of a fortnight!
Foraging Lime trees in its favourite habitats and settings:
Dependent on species – Woodland, hedges, amenity plant of streets, parks and gardens. You won”t be finding Tilia much above 550 metres.
The leaves of the large-leaved lime (Tilia platyphyllos) are not surprisingly, larger, than the other two Limes. But often the leaves you will see are large, as they will be coming from the base of the common lime (Tilia vulgaris).
All three species have cordate, aka heart-shaped leaves, with serrate leaf margins, and all species often produce leaves with a pointy tip. At the base of the leaf you will usually see veins at right angles.
Limes produce alternate leaves, from its often red, oval and pointed buds. I have read a description of them as looking similar to boxing gloves, with the ‘thumb’ of the glove found at the top of the bud.
All of our lime species have cordate leaves, with sharp-toothed margins and pointed leaf tips. A long petiole connects the leaf to stem.
Lime’s leaf and flower buds break in April and May. The following few weeks produce sweet floral aromatics from a tree often smelt before you see them.
It’s these first few weeks after the leaves appear, that are arguably of most value to the forager. The spring leaves are soft and rich in mucilage, and are an easy bulking ingredient. They can be picked quickly, in amounts. The flowers come a month or more later after the full canopy has opened.
Each flower has five creamy white petals with numerous yellow-orange. These medicinally potent and sweet smelling flowers are harvestable for two or three weeks in late spring. More pictures of flowers will be coming as soon as I harvest with my Camera!
The small-leaved lime and the common lime produce their blooms in variable numbers in the cluster, but somewhere between 4-10 flowers. The large-leaved lime has fewer, somewhere between 2 and 5 flowers per cluster.
On a lime tree, the flower is attached to leaf-like structure, often referred to as a bract. These pale green, 5-7 cm long bracts are attached by a short stalk onto the stems. The flowers have numerous stamens.
The large-leaved limes produce fruits that are noticeable for their strongly ribbed shell, whilst the fruits of the other two have pointed tips. The small-leaved limes have smooth fruit shells. None of the fruits are generally larger than 10 mm across.
Due to the popularity of the common lime as an amenity tree in urban and country parkland, these trees are pretty easy to find. Limes are ancient residents in Britain, although they are rare in the wild here now. Most of the original habitats where the lime once thrived are likely destroyed, developed on, deforested, badly reforested, and have suffered an ice age (all this in just the last 10,000 years).
“I think that I shall never see, a billboard as lovely as a tree. Perhaps, unless the billboards fall, I’ll never see a tree at all” ~ Ogden Nash
The common lime, is a hybrid of the small and large leaved and is the tallest of our three lime trees, possibly growing up to 46 metres where conditions are suitable and it is lucky enough to escape the chainsaw. Next is the large-leaved lime which can grow up to 40 metres high. Contrast this to the small-leaved lime which can reach up to 32 metres.
Parts Used Flowers with bracts. The medicinal flowers are collected from all species mentioned and used interchangeably.
Harvest As they open. Dry carefully below 30˚C and store well because they degrade easily.
Key constituents Volatile oil (including farnesol, phenolic acids); proanthocyanadins; tannins; flavonoids (hesperidin, Quercetin); mucilage; saponins; oestrogenic substances.
Actions Peripheral vaso-dilator, diaphoretic, relaxant, diuretic.
Pharmacology and uses This is another plant without masses of documented pharmacological research carried out into its constituents. What there has been, suggested the essential oil may be responsible for the well reported sedative and diuretic action.
Diuresis is thought to be as a result of irritation to kidney membranes. This plant is most widely used throughout Europe for its gentle sedative action, valuable to induce a restful sleep, whilst relaxing a tense nervous system and musculature.
For centuries, this plant has been successfully prescribed for tension headaches, and to treat symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, pre-menstrual tension and insomnia.
Lime flowers have been usefully employed to treat feverish colds, and as an anti-catarrhal remedy, used in respiratory infections. The saponins, tannins and essential oil constituents are of note here.
In Germany, physicians prescribe lime specifically to children for influenza. Lime is known to be useful in the treatment of atherosclerosis, and reportedly works as a hypotensive, where hypertension accompanies the disease.
The presence of the flavonoids and proanthocyanidins are said to play a role in preventing and alleviating this condition. This plant carries a long standing traditional reputation of use .
Foraging lime trees for food
As food, we can eat the leaf buds, which in winter offer an interesting salad sprinkle. Or pan fry in some spices for a couple of minutes. The leaves are great in salads, and the flowers make one ofthe finest herbal tea’s out there that you can enjoy, especially if sat in the shade under the very plant you just harvested from!
After flowering, the immature fruits are able to be used, as is the inner cambium bark during early spring…if caught right, when it should be loaded with polysaccharides and minerals. In Eastern Europe this rich phloem material has traditionally been dried and added to flour.
So love your linden and visit one today!