Small-leaved Lime (Tilia cordata) is Tree of the Year 2016

Tree of the Year 2016
Small-leaved Lime (Tilia cordata)

In 2016, let us focus on one of the most beautiful and most popular tree species: the lime. In Central Europe, lime trees are as familiar a sight as oak or chestnut. They are beloved because of their attractive crown, their heart-shaped leaves and the sweet fragrance of their blossoms in the summer. Large-leaved Lime was one of our very first Trees of the Year (1991). This time, we would like to draw your attention to its slightly more modest sister: the small-leaved Lime.

The shape of a lime tree’s crown mirrors the shape of the leaves: a heart turned upside down. Therefore you will not be surprised to learn that, in poetry and mythology, the lime appears as a symbol of love. Poets do not need to make a distinction between Large-leaved and Small-leaved Lime, they hardly differ in shape. However, we should pay attention to detail: can you tell the two apart with the help of this list?

Distinctive features:


Small-leaved Lime

Large-leaved Lime

Leaf underside


vein angles read-bearded
± smooth


white-bearded prominent veins

bud scales

2 (ralely 3)

3 (ralely 2)

blossoms/fruit per seed head

5 - 12

2 - 5

ripe fruit

smooth, squash-able

with ribs, adamant

annual shoot & leaf stalk



shoots, bloom

2 weeks later


(light, water, nutrients)



The best clues to recognize the small-leaved Lime, is to look for bald shoots and leaf stalks as well as a high number of blossoms/fruit (5-12 to an inflorescence) and the soft consistency of the fruit. This tree’s golden colours highlight any autumn scenery. It is also altogether more slender than the Large-leaved Lime (up to 6m thick).
Lime trees share a rather unusual (and clever) ability: drawing nutrition from its own rotting wood. You may see inner roots growing inside the trunk of big old, hollow trees, which can grow to an impressive size.

Both lime species bloom comparatively late in the year, in July, the Small-leaved Lime tree even some two weeks later. Since very few species flower that late in the year, Lime trees are popular with beekeepers and environmentalists. Of course, you do not need your eyes to find a lime tree in this season. You will be able to smell the lovely honey-scent from 200m away! Everybody loves this fragrance.
The two lime species have a different demand of water, light and nutrients. Large-leaved Lime has, hence its name, much the bigger leaves and thus clearly needs more of everything. The more modest small-leaved Lime is, on the other hand, not sensitive to shadow and thrives even underneath other, older and taller trees, in woods and parkland. That is a huge advantage which makes it popular in city landscaping as well as in forestry. In a wood, small-leaved Lime encourages the self-pruning of oak and ash trees by keeping their trunks in the shade, thus improving the quality of their wood (and raising their price, of course). The lime wood itself, on the other hand, provides excellent material for carving. The bast once served to make string, garments, bags, shoes and shoe laces, and to this day the exceptionally strong fibres are used in gardening.

In cities, small-leaved Lime is popular for growing because

+ it compartmentalises quickly (i.e. quickly self-seals wounds and fungus-infected areas)
+ it reiterates easily (i.e. resprouts after trimming and injury)
+ it is popular with bees and bumblebees
+ of its late and fragrant bloom
+ it is modest and tolerant
+ it is resistant to diseases and damage
+ it grows up to a thousand years old.

On a hot spring or summer’s day, the honeydew dripping from the trees covers bikes, cars and benches in a sticky, sugary layer. Even though the liquid does not cause any damage and simply washes off in the next shower, people tend to hold it against the lime tree. Our views concerning acceptable tree behaviour are certainly becoming stricter!

Young small-leaved Limes in open spaces are sensitive to sun burn because their bark is still thin and its dark colour absorbs the sunlight. When it heats up to over 45° C, considerable damage can be caused. You will often find dead or split bark on the side of the tree that is facing south/west. A coat of (nonpoisonous) white paint can prevent this sort of accident by reflecting the sunlight. After a few years the maturing bark will have adapted.

A particularly beautiful tradition is the so-called «dance tree»: The branches of a lime tree are manipulated to grow in such a way that a dance floor can be built high up in the crown, with rails, and stairs leading up to it. Once upon a time such constructions were frequently found, but except for a few particularly old trees (95% of which are large-leaved Lime trees) most of them have by now disappeared.

Almost all parts of the trees have natural healing powers. Lime blossom tea is a favourite, in Germany it’s sold in every supermarket. The flowers contain Lime blossom oil which is sudatory, diuretic, antispasmodic, stomachic and depurative – medical studies have proven its beneficial effects for the body’s defences. Many farms still have an old «tea tree» ... An infusion made from the leaves has a similar effect. Hot Lime blossom wraps, applied to the skin, are said to have a soothing effect.

Lime trees used to be an important part of village life, as «village trees», «trees of judgement«, «church trees», «dance trees». Social customs were created around them, they featured in legends and were eternalised in place names. In the days before the invention of the telephone and the internet, the lime tree on the village green traditionally served as meeting point. It was here that social gatherings took place, the latest news was exchanged and lovers met. That doesn’t seem half bad to me – perhaps we should restart some of these traditions?

Without any doubt, lime is one of the species most useful to and most appreciated by us. This relationship, many centuries old, is reflected a wide range of mythological stories. Many books have been written on the subject – a manifestation of the love the lime tree inspires. This alone already makes it special.

Translation: Wiebke Roloff, Berlin/D.




Lil Wendeler Baumkönigin 2016