Lime, small-leaved (Tilia cordata)

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Small-leaved lime is a deciduous tree native to the UK and across Europe.

Common name: small-leaved lime

Scientific name: Tilia cordata
Family: Malvaceae

UK provenance: native

Interesting fact: during the war lime blossom was used to make a soothing tea.

What does small-leaved lime look like?

Overview: the bark is grey-brown and smooth, developing flaky plates with age. The twigs are brown-red twigs in the shade, but become shiny in sunlight. Small-leaved lime may produce suckers from the base of the tree. 

Leaves: heart shaped with a pointed tip, 3–8cm in length, and hairless except for brown tufts on the underside of the vein-joints. 

Flowers: limes are hermaphrodite, meaning both male and female reproductive parts are contained within each flower. Flowers are green-yellow and have five petals, and hang in clusters of 4-10.

Fruits: once pollinated by insects, flowers develop into round to oval, smooth fruits with pointed tips.

Look out for: the heart shaped leaves have rusty red hairs in the vein axils on the underside.

Could be confused with: other limes and hybrids. It is possible to tell true species apart from the underside of the leaf. Common lime (Tilia x europea) has tufts of white hairs in leaf axils whereas in small leaved lime these are rusty red. Large leaved lime (Tilia playyphyllos) has hairs all over the underside. Common lime is a hybrid and is rare in the wild in the UK.

Identified in winter by: the twigs look red on top and more olive green underneath. The smooth shiny red buds are shorter than 4mm and have only 2-3 scales.

Where to find small-leaved lime

Native to much of Europe and Britain it is found in woodland and grows best on moist but well-drained nutrient soils.

Once a dominant woodland species, it is now only occasionally found in this habitat and in some English regions it is considered an indicator species of ancient woodland.

Value to wildlife

Lime leaves are eaten by the caterpillars of many moth species, including the lime hawk, peppered,  vapourer, triangle and scarce hook-tip moths. They are very attractive to aphids, providing a source of food for their predators, including hoverflies, ladybirds and many species of bird (bees also drink the aphid honeydew deposited on the leaves). The flowers provide nectar and pollen for insects, particularly bees.

Long-lived trees provide dead wood for wood-boring beetles, and nesting holes for birds.

Mythology and symbolism

Limes have long been associated with fertility. In France and Switzerland, limes are a symbol of liberty, and the trees were planted to celebrate different battles.

How we use small-leaved lime

Lime wood is soft and light, white-yellow and finely textured. It is easy to work and often used in turnery, carving and furniture making. Lime bark was traditionally used to make rope, and lime flowers were considered a valuable source of food for honey bees. The wood does not warp and is still used today to make sounding boards and piano keys.

Limes can be coppiced and used for fuel,  hop-poles, bean-sticks, cups, ladles, bowls and even Morris dancing sticks.

The young, translucent leaves of limes are edible. They can be cooked, but are best eaten raw, added to salads or sandwiches instead of lettuce.

Threats

Lime trees may be susceptible to fungal disease, which can cause root rot and bleeding cankers. Trees can also suffer infestations of aphids, sap-sucking insects and gall mites, including the nail gall. Trees are occasionally affected by wilt, which can be fatal.

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