Basswood vs. Balsa Wood: How Do They Differ?

Grove of linden trees
Grove of linden trees/

Written by Jennifer Hollohan

Updated: July 26, 2023

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Two highly recognizable kinds of wood are basswood (Tilia americana) and balsa wood (Ochroma pyramidale). You have likely heard these names, even if you don’t know much about trees or woodworking. But are they really that different?

This article explores the similarities and differences between these two magnificent trees.

Basswood vs. Balsa Wood: Comparison

We have highlighted some of these unique characteristics to help better showcase the differences between basswood and balsa wood. There is a chart below that explores the attributes of each tree.

Both basswood (Tilia americana) and balsa wood (Ochroma pyramidale) belong to the Malvaceae (mallow) family. This broad family category has over 4,200 species of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants.

While basswood and balsa wood share similar traits, they also have distinct features. A few of their differences include their uses, size, leaves, flowers, and growing requirements. Below, we explore each feature in depth.

BasswoodBalsa Wood
Scientific ClassificationTilia americanaOchroma pyramidale
Common Name(s)Basswood; LindenBalsa wood
OriginsIt is native to eastern North America.It is native to the Americas.
UsesWoodworking; carving projects such as barrels, crates, and honeycomb frames.Rafts and models, such as planes. 
SizeThis tree grows up to 75-130 feet high and has a rounded crown.It will grow to 98 feet high and has a wide and flat crown. 
LeavesHeart-shaped, toothed, and 3-6 inches long. Uneven bases.Heart-shaped with 3-5 veins and cornered edges. 
FlowersThe flowers bloom in June and July and are a pale yellow color. They are highly fragrant and loved by bees.Large, white, showy flowers that bloom in December and January.
Growing RequirementsHardy in Zones 3-8. Require moist, well-draining soils but are otherwise adaptable to soil conditions. They will grow in full shade to full shade and everywhere in between.Hardy in Zones 10-12. Require moist, fertile soil close to water sources like rivers and streams. Evergreen and frost-tender and can grow in areas with heavy clay soil. They need full sun and are drought tolerant.
Fun FactsBasswood’s name derives from its traditional use by Native Americans for ropes and chords. It was named “bastwood” by Pioneers, which ultimately led to its current nomenclature.Ideal for making models. 

Basswood vs. Balsa Wood: Uses

Woodworkers love basswood. Its soft nature is ideal for carving things like crates, barrels, boxes, and frames for honeycombs. Historically, basswood got turned into ropes and cords.

While balsa wood is the quintessential wood for models, especially model airplanes. It has a naturally lightweight nature, ideal for small craft projects.

Basswood vs. Balsa Wood: Size

Both members of the Malvaceae family grow tall, but not equally so.

Basswood grows between 75 and 130 feet high and has a rounded crown. While it is rare for them to exceed 100 feet, it is possible.

On the other hand, balsa wood grows to a maximum height of 98 feet and has a flat, wide crown. 

Basswood vs. Balsa Wood: Leaves

Basswood and balsa wood each have heart-shaped leaves. However, the more minute details of those leaves differ greatly.

The leaves on basswood trees have uneven bases and toothed edges. They typically grow around 3-6 inches in length. Their underside is a silvery color.

However, balsa wood leaves have cornered edges and 3-5 distinct veins. Additionally, their underside is white rather than silver.

Balsa wood leaves

Balsa wood leaves are heart-shaped and have multiple veins.

Basswood vs. Balsa Wood: Flowers

Basswood flowers have a short season. They arrive in either May or June (depending on the weather) and only last through July. The light, delicate, highly fragrant flowers are pale yellow. And bees adore their sweet nectar. Bees that visit basswood trees produce distinctive honey from the pale blossoms.

In contrast, balsa wood flowers are large and white. Additionally, they bloom at an unexpected time — December and January. Additionally, pollinators of all kinds adore their blossoms.

Basswood flowers

Basswood flowers are a beautiful pale yellow.

Basswood vs. Balsa Wood: Growing Requirements

Lovely basswood trees are not terribly picky about their growing environment. They love Zones 3-8 and moist, well-draining soil. Beyond that, they don’t ask for much. The beautiful trees are highly adaptable to a variety of soil conditions. Additionally, they can tolerate any amount of sun, from full exposure to full shade. 

However, balsa wood will only grow in specific environments. You will often see them close to streams or rivers. The evergreens are only hardy in Zones 10-11 and prefer very moist soil. They require full sun and are frost-tender, but the lovely trees will grow in heavy clay soil and are drought-tolerant.

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About the Author

Jennifer Hollohan is a writer at A-Z Animals, where her primary focus is on gardening, mammals, and travel. Jennifer has over twenty years of writing experience. She holds a Master of Arts in Anthropology from the University of Colorado at Boulder, which she earned in 2005, and is a Herbalist. Jennifer lives in Colorado with her family. She loves hiking, admiring wildflowers, gardening, and making herbal tea.

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