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Tree to 20 m. Bark grey, with close vertical ridges in maturity. Twigs slender (2–3 mm thick), green, becoming glabrous. Buds large (9–12 mm long), with two visible scales of almost equal length, mostly glabrous. Leaves 7–12 × 5.5–9.5 cm, orbicular to subrectangular, rugose; upper surface soon glabrous, lower surface greenish, with a variable cover of brown stellate hairs (most commonly with 4 or 8 arms), and with longer brown hairs fringing the vein-axils ; marginal teeth sometimes almost absent, or rounded with mucronate tips 0.5 mm long. Floral bracts 5–11 × 0.8–2.3 cm, pale green with dense stellate hairs below, sessile or with stalk to 0.5 cm. Inflorescence drooping, normally with 2-5 flowers; staminodes five. Fruit large (8–14 x 7–9 mm) , five-ribbed, mamillate and tomentose; fruit-wall thick and woody. (Pigott 2012, Flora of China 2018).
Distribution China Gansu; Henan; Hubei; Shaanxi; Sichuan; Xizang; Yunnan.
Habitat Forests between 1800 and 3900 m.
USDA Hardiness Zone 7-8
RHS Hardiness Rating H5
Tilia chinensis is an extremely variable species from central and western China, where it is a big tree, forming a rounded, spreading crown. The leaves are dull green above, the underside covered in brown hair with the green showing through. The extent of this indumentum is variable and is not a significant taxonomic character, although the Flora of China treatment uses it to distinguish infraspecific taxa. Within T. chinensis Flora of China maintains var. investita (V. Engl.) Rehder, with fewer hairs on the leaf underside, though with tufts of hair in the leaf axils, and var. intonsa (E.H. Wilson) Y.C. Hsu & R. Zhuge (see Bean: B601), with longer, dense tomentum on the twigs (said to be glabrous in var. chinensis); but it is likely that these are merely extremes of a continuum.
The species has grown well across Britain, with trees to 14 x 0.53 m dbh at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, in 2014 (an accession from Farrer 393, originally grown as Tilia laetevirens), and to 22 x 0.46 m dbh in 2009 in the lime collection within Dibben’s Wood at Deene Park in Northamptonshire (Tree Register 2018). This latter group belongs to the var. intonsa, whose Latin name aptly describes the rather shaggy, unkempt and unshaven appearance of the foliage of these downy trees. However, Dirk Benoit of Pavia Boomkwekerij has found T. chinensis difficult to propagate, as it will not ‘take’ on stocks of either T. cordata or T. platyphyllos (Benoit 2006) – which probably explains why the trees labelled T. intonsa at Colesbourne mentioned by Bean (1981b) and Clarke (1988) are both T. platyphyllos, the failure of the scion having passed unnoticed.