Little-leaf linden

Tilleul à petites feuilles

Tilia cordata Mill.Malvaceae (mallow family)

Origin: Europe


Little-leaf linden is a medium-sized tree, with a straight trunk and a columnar crown.

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Leaves are nearly as wide as long with a tapered tip and a slightly asymmetrical flat or heart-shaped base.

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Fragrant cream-coloured flowers are borne in a cluster attached to a pale green strap-shaped bract.

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Fruits are small, round, grey-green, covered with fine hairs.

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Little-leaf linden is a medium-sized tree, to 20 m (65'') tall, and 40 - 80 cm (15" - 30") in diameter, with a straight trunk and often a columnar crown.

Upper branches reach upwards while lower branches often curve downwards, and if not pruned, the foliage may reach the ground.

Mature bark is dark grey-brown with narrow furrows and flat ridges while the young bark is paler and smooth.

Twigs are brownish, zigzagged, usually smooth, with reddish asymmetrical buds 5 - 7 mm (about 1/4") long.

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Leaves are 3.5 - 8 cm (1 1/2" - 3") long and nearly as wide, with a tapered tip and a slightly assymmetrical flat or heart-shaped base, and sharp teeth along the edge.

The underside of the leaf is pale and smooth, with rust-coloured hairs in the vein axils.

Leaves and branchlets have an alternate arrangement on the branch.

Leaves turn pale yellow or brown in the fall.

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Five to eight, strongly fragrant, cream-coloured flowers are borne in a flat-topped cluster

Each cluster is attached to and dangles beneath a pale green strap-shaped bract, 3.5 - 8 cm (1 1/3" - 3") long.

Flowers are small with 5 petals, 5 sepals and many prominent stamens.

Flowers emerge in June or July, after the tree has leafed out.

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Fruits are small, round, thin-walled capsules borne in clusters of 5-9 from a pale green strap-shaped bract.

Each capsule is about 5 mm (less than 1/4") across, pale grey-green, covered with fine hairs, sometimes with a faint rib extending from stem to tip.

Fruits mature in the fall and may be seen on the trees throughout the winter.

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Little-leaf linden is native to Europe and Asia. Its many cultivars are planted widely in North America especially in urban settings.


Traditionally the lindens were classified in the linden family (Tiliaceae) but have fairly recently been incorporated into the mallow family (Malvaceae).

Derivation of names

The genus name Tilia is the classical Latin name for the linden. In Britain Tilia species are referred to as limes while North American Tilia species are called basswoods. The species name cordata means heart-shaped, from the Latin cordis (of the heart), in reference to the shape of the leaves. The alternate common names little-leaf linden and small-leaved lime refer to the size of its leaf when compared to larger-leaved species. However, the size of its leaves is in fact variable and overlaps with that of most other lindens.

Commercial use

Little-leaf lindens have been planted as ornamental trees since ancient times. Some specimens in English parks are over 350 years old.

Little-leaf linden has excellent wood for fine carving and turning.

In The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Trees, authors David More and John White describe how, for centuries or even millenia, linden trees were cut down to force them to resprout from the stump, a practice known as coppicing. The sprouts, or "poles," which grow up around the circumference of the stump, can be harvested annually for the fibre in the inner bark which is known as bast. (The common name basswood, used in North America, originates from bast-wood). The bast can then be processed to make rope or fabric. Each year the living stump increases in diameter in the same way as a standing tree. The authors state that stumps "16 m in diameter are known, and it is estimated that they are over 2000 years old, or perhaps even as old as the recolonization by this species in Europe following the last ice age 6500 years ago."

Related species

There are many species, hybrids and cultivated varieties (cultivars) of lindens from Europe which have similar features and can be very difficult to tell apart. They all share leaves that are broad, somewhat asymmetrical and somewhat heart-shaped, but that differ in size, nature of the teeth, and type and quantity of hair on the underside. Little-leaf linden can be distinguished from American basswood (Tilia americana) because it has much smaller leaves and a shorter bract attached to the flower and fruit clusters.

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Little-leaf linden IN TORONTO

Little-leaf linden's place in Toronto's urban forest

Little-leaf linden is a common ornamental tree and is highly tolerant of urban conditions. It is widely planted throughout North America in parks and as a street tree. Toronto's Mount Pleasant Cemetery has many fine little-leaf lindens, and it can be found in many of Toronto's parks. It is one of the most common street trees in Toronto and the GTA.

Landscape value and potential for home planting

Little-leaf linden is prized for its shade and its fragrant flowers. However, the bracts that bear the flowers and fruit are considered by some to be very messy and difficult to deal with if they drop in a shrubbery or flowerbed.

Pests and diseases: Little-leaf linden is one of the potential hosts for gypsy moth (Porthetria dispar), an invasive defoliating pest (see Natural Resources Canada factsheet). Little leaf lindens are also susceptible to aphids and Japanese beetles.

This tree is available for planting through the City of Toronto's street tree program.

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WHERE CAN I SEE Little-leaf linden?

Find trees on Tree Tour maps at Canadian Tree Tours:

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