A medium-sized to large deciduous tree reaching a height of 18 to 37 m (60 to 120 ft) exceptionally 39 m (128 ft) with a trunk diameter of 1–1.5 m (3–5 ft) at maturity. It grows faster than many North American hardwoods, often twice the annual growth rate of American beech and many birch species. Life expectancy is around 200 years, with flowering and seeding generally occurring between 15 and 100 years, though occasionally seed production may start as early as 8 years.
Dominant in the sugar maple–basswood forest association, which is most common in western Wisconsin and central Minnesota, but occurs as far east as New England and southern Quebec in places that have mesic soil with relatively high pH. It also has minor occurrence in many other forest cover types.
Its flowers provide abundant nectar for insects. The seeds are eaten by chipmunks, mice, and squirrels. Rabbits and voles eat the bark, sometimes girdling young trees. The leaves serve as food for caterpillars of various Lepidoptera (see Lepidoptera which feed on Tilia). The ribbed cocoon maker species Bucculatrix improvisa has not been found on other plants.
This species is particularly susceptible to adult Japanese beetles (an invasive species in North America) that feed on its leaves.