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Basswood: the ultimate wild salad plant.

Who said that a wild salad had to be made of dandelions? Most of us have heard of common yard and garden weeds being used for salad greens, but one of the best wild salad plants in North America is a tree, the basswood or linden. This tree is either native or grown ornamentally throughout most of the continent. While the wild plants touted for use as salad greens tend to be a little on the strong and bitter side of the spectrum--things you would use to diversify your salad but generally not as the base ingredient--basswood greens do not fit this description. Their flavor is mild and slightly sweet, something you can easily chow down one forkful after another.

Identification

There are three species of basswood native to the eastern half of North America, plus several European species grown as yard and street trees, and all of these are in the genus Tilia. Basswood is quite abundant and is a dominant component of many of our eastern woodlands. The trees are recognized by their large, thin, toothed, alternate, heart-shaped leaves. They have a peculiar habit of growing in clumps or rings, sometimes with over a dozen trunks growing right next to each other, but more commonly in groups of two to five. The bark is smooth and gray until the trees get older, after which it separates into narrow ridges that are almost parallel. Basswood tends to be a tall tree with a narrow crown, usually growing along with maples, white ash, birch, black cherry, red oak, and beech.

The five-petaled whitish flowers grow in small clusters, appearing in early or mid summer. The most distinctive feature of the basswood/ linden genus is the tongue-like bract (a modified leaf) attached to each cluster of flowers or fruit. This leaf is lighter in color than the other leaves and has a dramatically different shape. No other tree in North America bears anything like it.

Basswood salad

Basswood leaves only make a good salad green in spring and very early summer, when they are young and tender. They are best just after the buds open, when the flavor is notably sweet. For several weeks into the growing season, the youngest tender leaves at the tips of the new growth are suitable for eating. You'll know they are too old when they are too tough for your liking, and you'll quickly develop an eye for the tenderest leaves. Besides being smaller, they are lighter in color and shinier than mature foliage.

I probably eat more basswood greens than any other wild salad. I like to grab a handful and nibble them as I hike through the woods or down the road. I also often pick a bagful of leaves and bring them home so I can sit down to a proper bowl of salad, embellished with other greens in season and complete with dressing. Less often, I use basswood greens on sandwiches. And occasionally I use them in cooked dishes, but they shrink so much and their flavor is lost this way, so I prefer using them raw as one would use lettuce.

Unless you can jump many times your own height, you'll want to look for basswood trees growing in the open, at the edge of the woods, along roads and fencelines, or wherever else the trees tend to have 'low branches. It is nearly impossible to kill a basswood by picking its leaves for salad, unless you're harvesting from a small shoot or sapling. In this case it is probably best to leave the terminal leaves on each branch so that it can continue to grow.

Other uses for basswood

Linden wood is very light in color, almost white when first cut, and shows little grain. It is among our weakest, softest, and lightest "hardwoods." Disdained for firewood, it has found many other uses over the years. However, the most interesting thing about the basswood is its bark.

The name basswood is derived from the word "bast," meaning "plant fiber used for cordage or textiles." For untold thousands of years, Native Americans as well as Europeans obtained large amounts of a moderately strong fiber from the inner bark of this tree. This bast was used to make nets, woven bags and coarse coverings, and all sorts of rope, lashing, and binding. Compared to fibers of herbaceous plants like nettle, flax, and dogbane, basswood fibers are rather weak, but their advantage lies in their length and the great volume of fiber available, which is more labor-effective to work with for any use that doesn't require great tensile strength.

By peeling the bark off of a basswood you cannot only get fiber, but also food. Although the uninitiated may be tempted to laugh at the notion, the cambium of basswood is utterly delicious. Cambium is not "inner bark" as many sources describe; it is the layer between the inner bark and the wood, which grows inward and outward, creating both of them. The cambium is generally so thin it is almost impossible to find, but when the tree is in its growth spurt in early summer, it is much thicker than usual. At this time, if you peel the bark from a basswood, you will find a sweet, slushy layer adhering to the wood. This is the cambium. I scrape it off with a knife, and it comes in strips that look a little like sauerkraut but taste like very sweet cucumber. One tree can yield a substantial amount of cambium in May or June. Of course, I don't advise cutting down trees just to eat some cambium, but if you are thinning your woods or cutting basswood for any other reason at this time of year, there is a little-known treat to be had.

Besides its young leaves, the basswood has several other edible parts of lesser importance. In the middle of winter, basswood buds provide a small but much-appreciated trail snack, although their texture is a little slimy like okra.

Another well-known product of the lindens is their flowers. Reputed to make the finest honey, basswood blooms attract swarms of bees. These flowers are sometimes collected and steeped to make a tea, and both the flowers and flower-buds can be eaten raw or cooked. I think the flowers and tea produced by the European little-leaved linden (Tilia cordata, often planted as a shade tree in North America) are better than those produced by the American basswood.

Finally, the basswood is a fantastic tree for wildlife. It tends to become hollow, providing den sites for owls, squirrels, raccoons, and even bears. The tiny, pea-sized nuts it often litters over the forest floor are edible to humans, tasting like sunflower seeds, but they are so small as to not be worth anybody's time. However they are a major food source for deer mice, flying squirrels, chipmunks, and many other small animals.

Hopefully this gives you a new appreciation for an often-overlooked tree.

Sam Thayer

Wisconsin
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Title Annotation:Foraging
Author:Thayer, Sam
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Mar 1, 2006
Words:1163
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