Until you get started, telling hardwood trees apart in the winter seems really difficult. But once you learn to recognize a few trees, you will find that it isn't all that hard. A good tree to start with is basswood (sometimes called linden) because some of basswood's distinguishing characteristics show up even better in winter than in summer. For instance, basswood has zigzag twigs, but this architectural detail is lost when summer's heart-shaped leaves act like sheathing on a house, obscuring the structure.
The red buds are large and round, in a lopsided sort of way. They are reported to be edible, though not tasty, so save the experience until you are extremely hungry. Even when the buds are high up in the tree, they are recognizable from the ground, for most similar trees have pointed buds of brown or gray. There is a leafy bract on the stalk that holds the flowers and fruits and a few of these, too, can sometimes be seen in winter.
Basswood bark – gray, narrowly furrowed, somewhat flaky - is not that remarkable. And though you occasionally see other trees growing in clumps, basswood makes a habit of it. If you see one stem, you usually see several, because this species sprouts prolifically from the stump.
At 26 pounds per cubic foot (dry weight), the wood is among the lightest commercial woods. It once was used as a substitute for white pine, especially for trim, as it nails well, takes paint, usually has far fewer knots, and is reasonably stable although it sometimes needs sanding because the surface becomes furry when sawn. While the supply of basswood is limited, it is currently less expensive than white pine and some woodworkers are turning to basswood again.
The Iroquois carved face masks from living basswood trees and then cut the masks off the tree and hollowed out the back. It still is the wood of choice for decoy makers and many other woodcarvers. The grain is so even that some say it cuts like cheese.
Peter Kalm noticed in 1749 that Indians in the northeast had bags for carrying food made of basswood bark. It was the most frequently used tree for making rope and even the thread for sewing up cattail mats was made from basswood bark. Several European linden species are used as street trees throughout the U.S., but none has the stature and elegance of our native basswood.
Its value to wildlife is not rated very highly, though chipmunks pack away the little round nutlets and hare browse the twigs. The only well-known wildlife species that fully appreciates basswood isn't a native and often is not wild either: the honeybee, along with at least 66 less known insect species, loves basswood flowers. A sawyer in the Connecticut River valley says they even love the wood and bother him when he is sawing it. Coincidentally, comb honey boxes are made exclusively of basswood because it requires a feat only basswood can perform. The boxes are made from a single piece of wood which is bent 90 degrees at the corners when dry.
Late in June, just as the days settle into really being hot, the languorous and penetrating smell of basswood flowers makes its way across the countryside. Flowering lasts only about three weeks and good crops of flowers occur only every two or three years. I've been startled in the woods by the loud din, almost a roar, made by the myriad insects who found a basswood in full nectar production.