Limes

Small-leaved lime
Tilia cordata

Reader's Digest logo

Small-leaved lime belongs to the genus Tilia and is a member of the Lime (Linden) family (Tiliaceae).

Small-leaved lime (Tilia cordata) is a deciduous tree growing to over 30m and flowering June to July.

Lifespan: may reach considerable ages – in excess of 1,000 years – and when coppiced may live even longer.

 

Characteristics

Bark is smooth and grey, flaking into plates with age. May produce suckers from the base of the trunk. Leaves are 3–6cm, heart shaped with a pointed tip and rounded lobes at the base, toothed margins, mostly hairless below, but with tufts of rusty hairs in vein axils. Side veins are not prominent.

Limes are hermaphrodite; they have ‘perfect’ flowers with both sexes represented in one flower. Flowers are white-yellow, five-petalled in clusters of four to ten and share a common stalk which is fused to a long green bract (10cm); fragrant. Fruits are round-oval, smooth with pointed tips (approx. 6–10mm). The long green bract acts as a sail to assist wind dispersal. Small-leaved lime is insect pollinated.

Small-leaved lime tree
Small-leaved lime leaves

Distribution

Native in the UK and across Europe.

An occasional resident in older woodland on fertile soils; can be locally common in England, Wales and into southern Scotland, rarer in Ireland.

Once a dominant woodland tree; now much reduced in range and a small component of oak and beech woodland. In some (mostly southern) English regions it is considered an ancient woodland indicator species.

Because of their graceful stature, bright foliage and fragrant flowers, cultivated or hybrid limes are often planted in urban and residential areas or in long avenues in country parks.

Human value

The wood of lime is soft and light, white-yellow and fine textured. Its softness helps it to resist splitting. It is easy to work and used in turnery, carving and furniture making.

In the past, its fibrous bark was used to make rope and lime flowers were important in honey production; the value of both these products was probably responsible for the spread of the tree during the Middle Ages. Lime has a long history of being used as a coppice species as it can produce long straight poles. The wood does not warp and today it is still used to make sounding boards and keys for pianos.

The flowers are still important for honey producers and can be dried to make a relaxing herbal tea.

Lime wood was frequently used by the 17th-century master carver Grinling Gibbons who produced decorative still life carvings for Blenheim, Hampton Court and St Paul’s Cathedral.

Small-leaved lime fruits
Small-leaved lime leaves

Wildlife value

Lime leaves are popular food for many moth species such as the lime hawk, peppered, vapourer, triangle and scarce hook-tip (Sabra harpagula) moths.

The flowers provide nectar for honey bees.

Long-lived decaying lime trees provide a variety of dead wood habitats which support wood-boring insects such as the stag beetle.

Small-leaved lime is a canopy component of lowland mixed deciduous woodland which is a priority habitat under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

Limes can be planted for their soil-improving properties; they improve the nutrient status and structure of soil.

Management

A shade-tolerant, cold- and frost-hardy species which can reach a large size on suitable soils. It is deep rooted and prefers well-drained to moist sites of medium to rich fertility from neutral to alkaline. It cannot tolerate peaty soil, very dry or nutrient poor sites.

Seed can be collected in October. There is a natural dormancy of 18 months after ripening, so seeds must be pre-treated for 18 months before sowing. Natural seed regeneration is sometimes sparse; possibly due to cooler temperatures in the UK.

May be susceptible to Phytophthora which can cause root disease and bleeding cankers. Can also suffer infestations of aphids, sap-sucking insects and gall mites including the nail gall Eriophyes tiliae. Occasionally affected by Verticillium wilt which can be fatal.

Limes are not usually damaged by grey squirrels but they are palatable to deer and livestock.

Back to top

Small-leaved lime tree

Large-leaved lime
Tilia platyphyllos

Large-leaved lime leaves

Large-leaved lime is also a member of the Tilia genus. It is a deciduous tree growing to 40m and flowering June to July.

It has subtly different characteristics to small-leaved lime.

Bark is darker. Leaves are larger (6–12cm); lobed leaf base often lopsided; grey-downy below and sometimes above. Side veins are strongly prominent. Fruits are rounded and strongly ribbed.

Large-leaved lime does not produce suckers from the base of the trunk.

Large-leaved lime is also native to the UK and can be locally frequent in southern England and from south east Wales in a north-eastern band across to Yorkshire.

Seed can be collected in October and pre-treated for 18 months before sowing.

Back to top

Common lime
Tilia x europaea

Common lime tree

Common lime leaves

Common lime is also a member of the Tilia genus. It is a deciduous tree growing to over 40m and flowering June to July.

Common lime is a hybrid between small-leaved and large-leaved lime, and exhibits characteristics from both species.

Leaves are generally 6–10cm; lobed leaf base is lopsided; hairless below but with tufts of white hairs in vein axils. Flower heads are drooping, in clusters of two to five. Fruits are round-oval, slightly ribbed with a pointed tip.

Common lime also produces many suckers from the base of the trunk.

It is frequently planted in urban and residential settings and is very common. Occasionally it is found as a natural hybrid in the wild.

Seed can be collected in October and pre-treated for 18 months before sowing.

Common lime may suffer heavy aphid infestations which cause sticky honeydew to drip from the tree.

Back to top

Illustrations © Reader’s Digest Association, Inc.
Photographs © Forestry Commission