Common Lime – Tillia X Europaea

Common lime is a deciduous broadleaf tree, native to the UK and parts of Europe.

Common name: common lime

Scientific name: Tilia x europaea
Family: Malvaceae

UK provenance: native

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

What does common lime look like?

Overview: a hybrid between small-leaved and large-leaved lime, common lime has characteristics of both species. The bark is pale grey-brown and irregularly ridged, with characteristic large burrs and leaf shoots at the base of the tree. Twigs are slender and brown, although they become red in the sun.

Leaves: leaf buds are red, with one small scale and one large scale, resembling a boxing glove, and form on long leaf stalks. The leaves are dark green in colour, heart-shaped and flimsy and measure 6–10cm in length. They have a lopsided, lobed leaf base and tufts of white hairs in vein axils, and fade to a dull yellow before falling in autumn.

Flowers: limes are hermaphrodite, meaning both the male and female reproductive parts are contained within one flower. Flowers are white-yellow, five-petalled and hang in clusters of 2-5 and have a drooping habit.

Fruits: once pollinated by insects, they develop into round-oval, slightly ribbed fruits, with a pointed tip.

Look out for: the heart shaped leaves have white-cream 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 red twigs are hairy and more so at the ends. The red-pink buds are longer than 4mm and only have 2-3 scales.

Where to find common lime

It is usually planted in urban and residential areas, however, it also occurs as a natural hybrid in the wild.

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 common 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 most common use of common lime is as an ornamental tree in large parks and estates.

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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