Quick facts

Common name: common lime

Scientific name: Tilia x europaea

Family: Malvaceae

Origin: native

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.

Look out for: the heart-shaped leaves which have white-cream hairs in the base of the vein on the underside.

Identified in winter by: the red twigs which are hairy. The red-pink buds are longer than 4mm and only have 2–3 scales.

What does common lime look like?

Common lime single leaf on white background

Credit: Nature Photographers Ltd / WTML

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, 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.

Common lime flowers

Credit: Frank Hecker / Alamy Stock Photo

Flowers

Limes are hermaphrodite, meaning both the male and female reproductive parts are contained within one flower. Flowers are white-yellow with five petals and hang in clusters of 2–5.

Common lime seeds on white background

Credit: Nature Photographers Ltd / WTML

Fruits

Once pollinated by insects, the flowers develop into round-oval, slightly ribbed fruits, with a pointed tip.

Not to be confused with:

Other limes and hybrids. It is possible to tell true species apart by looking at the underside of the leaf. Common lime (Tilia x europaea) has tufts of white hairs at the end of twigs, whereas in small-leaved lime (Tila cordata) these are rusty red. Large-leaved lime (Tilia platyphyllos) has hairs all over the underside. Common lime is a hybrid and is rare in the wild in the UK.

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Where to find common lime

Common lime is native to much of Europe, including the UK, and occurs in the wild in scattered areas wherever the two parent species are located. It is more common in urban areas and parks.

Did you know?

Common limes are often host to heavy aphid populations which drip sticky honeydew deposits on anything lying underneath the trees.

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 commemorate battles.

Common lime leaves in basket

Credit: Frank Hecker / Alamy Stock Photo

Uses of common lime

Lime wood is soft and light, white-yellow and finely textured. It is easy to work and often used in wood turning, 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.

Did you know?

In Finnish folklore, limes are trees of protection.

Threats and conservation

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. Occasionally they are affected by wilt, which can be fatal.