Elm trees are one of the most dramatic canopy/shade trees that you could ever see. No wonder, it has been present in fantasy and thriller films through the years.
These trees belong to the genus Ulmus. It has 35 other cousin trees consisting of shade, ornamental, and forest trees.
They are native to northern regions with temperate climates. They are sought after for their sturdy wood but also for their attractive foliage and samaras.
Elm trees found their way to landscaping because each type has a unique characteristic. This is the reason why you need to know the types of elm trees. Luckily for you, we will cover everything about the elm tree in this post so read on.
Elm tree facts
Before we thoroughly discuss the types of elm trees, their distinct characteristics, and other FAQs, here are some facts about the tree that are worth knowing.
- There are dwarf species of elms which are used mainly as ornamentals in large home vicinities.
- Elm trees are generally vase-shaped because its branches and trunk limbs are arched outwards.
- Elm flowers are hermaphrodites (self-pollinating). They are mostly greenish-white in color but some elm types have red clusters of flowers. The flowers usually appear before the foliage. This happens during winter or at the arrival of spring.
- This tree can be propagated through seed planting, grafting, or a root cutting.
- Elm is important in wildlife conservation and biodiversity as it continues to be a food source for possum, squirrels, prairie chickens, and grouse.
- Elm wood is split-resistant before the dawn of the Dutch elm disease. It was used to build canoes, longbows, and ropes by Native Americans and during the Middle Ages.
- Elm trees have always been used in treating gunshots, wounds, diarrhea, and urinary tract diseases.
- One elm tree has a cooling effect comparable to five AC units.
- Elm trees infected with the Dutch elm disease could not survive for more than 30years.
Elm tree meaning
Aside from being one of the tallest trees in the world, you would be astounded as to how rich the symbolism and meaning of elm trees would be.
Myth and lore
Across the world, elm trees are regarded differently because of their representations in various myths and lore. For example, in German mythology, elm represents the first woman who came into existence. As such, the elm is associated with femininity and is considered as a feminine tree.
For both Greeks and Romans, elm trees represent dreams, death, and sleep. This is because of the belief that the tree was the symbol of Oneiros, the god of night and dreams.
Its association with dreams and sleep is also seen in many native American, European and Asian tribes. As such, elm trees are revered for their psychic power.
At the dawn of Christianity, the elm became a symbol of Christ’s discipleship through its wide-spreading branches and roots. The elm then became one of the most sacred insignias of the Knights Templar.
In literature, the elm tree is found in Virgil’s writing, associating it to prophecy and clear vision. In the Lord of the Rings, the battle of Helm’s Deep is considered one of the turning points of the film. In France, the tree is considered as the tree of justice.
In urban legends and pop culture, elms are representations of bond, love, and friendship. It also symbolizes durability and longevity. It is also a tree of protection, purity, and liberation making it a common sight in front of big properties and churches.
And drawing from the Nordic belief of the elm being a feminine tree, up to now, bride to be’s and single women wanting to spark romance line up to make a wish in front of elm trees because it has grown to be a symbol of birth and fertility.
Elm tree leaves
When it comes to leaves, elm and ash trees are usually pitted with each other. Elm tree leaves are arranged alternately but in a staggered manner.
They are oval in shape, with jagged or toothed edges, and have a pointy end. They are also distinct for their visible veins. Elm tree leaves form dense tree canopies making the tree one of the best shade trees available.
Elm leaves usually appear after the first bloom. The foliage starts as dark or pale green, some come with tinges of red and gray. As the seasons’ change, so does the foliage.
Elm tree bark
As have been mentioned here, the bark of elm trees is useful as medicine. They are referenced in Native American archives and early English settlers as a cure to digestive upsets and urinary diseases.
Elm tree barks usually have gray and brown colors. They are furrowed, often with intersecting ridges and medium to deep fissures.
However, some elm types like the Siberian have a more colorful inner bark. Cedar elms have a purplish bark and the bark of European white elm will remain smooth throughout. Hence, the bark of elm trees can be used to distinguish its types and cultivars.
Elm tree seeds
Elm tree seed pods are called samaras and they are attractive on their own. Elm tree seeds are usually produced at the end of the bloom phase of the tree.
They fall down to the ground after spring. The seeds are enclosed in a paper-like pod or casing. Each casing bears one seed with a size resembling a pea. The seeds are round and flat and they could be dried for propagation.
Elm tree seeds are not edible. And because of its profuse seeding, it could be quite messy after they all drop down after spring.
Elm tree identification
Basically, four distinguishing factors will help you in identifying an elm tree. These are in terms of leaves, bark, height, and trunk.
You need to know these basic identification factors because as we have mentioned, the types and cultivars of elm trees have unique features that separate them from each other.
Again, the leaves are alternating, oval-shaped, and with toothed edges. The base of the leaf should be asymmetrical and the veins should be prominent.
Most of the time, the leaves of elm trees have smooth tops and fuzzy or rough undersides. European white elms specifically have 17veins upfront and 14 veins on the leaf’s underside. American elms have long, pointy leaves at 10-14cm while English elm has 10cm leaves.
Elm tree barks are coarse and rough because of their deep furrows, sharp scales, and deep fissures.
The tree also sports intersecting ridges. Most elm trees have brown or gray colors when it comes to bark. Specific types may have reddish-brown barks. European white elm trees have smooth barks all throughout making them very distinct among other elm tree types.
Elm trees could grow very large. On average, they grow from 115-150ft. Depending on the type or cultivar, elm trees could also be 60ft in width.
The American elm is considered as the largest elm tree. As they reach maturity, elm trees become more fountain-shaped in structure. Depending on their location, elm trees grow 2-3ft annually.
Elm trees have a splitting trunk. Usually, mature elm trees have two or more trunks branching from its main trunk. This separates the elm from aspen and ash trees and all other trees with a single and vertical trunk.
Other factors that help in identifying elm trees also include the location of the possible elm tree that you spotted. In the US, elm trees are quite concentrated in the eastern part starting from the Rocky Mountains.
You could also identify an elm tree based on the type of critters it attracts. Elm trees are particularly famous among possums, squirrels, woodpeckers, chickadees, and raccoons. Slippery elms, in particular, are the favorite of hummingbirds and other birds.
Types of elm trees
Just to clarify, there are at least 30 recognized types and cultivars of elm trees but the ones featured here are the most popular of them all. These are the ones mostly found in urban settings such as in parks and boulevards and/or as ornamentals in home landscaping. They are also used for timber and medicine.
1. American Elm Tree (Ulmus americana)
This one is considered as the largest elm tree type. It was very popular back in the days because of its fountain-like spread. Its popularity, however, dwindled because of its vulnerability to the Dutch elm disease.
It is very unique for its elliptical, double-serrated leaves and a ridged, dark-gray bark with deep, diamond-shaped fissures. It could grow to a 100ft and will withstand harsh winters.
2. Camperdown Elm Tree (Ulmus glabra ‘Camperdownii’)
This one is native to the UK and is a variety of the weeping elm. It is known for its dome-shaped crown, contorted branches, and small flowers in the spring turning the whole tree into a silver-green color.
Its leaves are double-toothed, veined, and rough. It turns dull yellow as fall approaches. Its bark is gray, upright, and smoother compared to the English elm.
3. Cedar Elm Tree (Ulmus crassifolia)
It is also called the basket elm and is a popular canopy tree found in south-central America. They are cultivated as ornamental trees in home landscaping, particularly in Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas. It is leafy, creating a round-shaped crown.
It has the smallest leaves of all elm trees, though. The foliage maintains the typical jagged edges of elm leaves. They are dark green in spring and drop in the fall. As for their bark, it is mainly gray, with fissures on the trunk.
4. Cherry Bark Elm Tree (Ulmus villosa)
It is also called the Marn elm and is one of the most distinct Asian elms because of its notable longevity. This one is hardy and is also vulnerable to the Dutch elm disease only to a lesser extent.
It has bright-green, oblong leaves that are heavily jagged on the edges. It also produces clustered, dense flowers, and elliptical samaras.
Its bark is known as smooth but with surrounding flaky fissures resembling that of birch trees. The bark is taken as medicine because of its anti-inflammatory properties.
5. Chinese Elm Tree (Ulmus parvifolia)
It is also fondly called as the lacebark elm found natively in Vietnam, China, Indonesia, Taiwan, and North Korea. It is a popular shade tree with a canopy of at least 30ft.
It has a distinct slender trunk and flaking bark with a cream-orange flesh. Its leaves are small yet dense, single-toothed, dark green, and leathery in texture.
It is more resistant to the Dutch elm disease than any other elm tree type making it a popular ornamental.
6. David Elm Tree (Ulmus davidiana)
It is a small elm variety native to China, Korea, Mongolia, and Siberia. It is considered a smaller version of the American elm. It makes a good shade tree thanks to its dense canopy at the mature phase.
Its leaves have an ovate-elliptical shape growing red at youth and crimson tinges in contrast to green as it reaches maturity. Leaves are serrated with a rough upper side and smooth underside. It sports a slender trunk and grayish-grown, medium-fissured bark.
7. English Elm Tree (Ulmus procera, Ulmus minor ‘Atinia’)
It is also called common elm or horse hay. They are all over England, rising to up to 30ft and living for more than 100years. Throughout its lifetime, its bark will be grayish-brown in color with deep, rough fissures all over.
The leaves are green, hairy, and toothed, oval in shape, and are slightly smaller than the wych elm leaves. It blooms tassel-like flowers in the spring. It is prone to shedding during fall.
8. European White Elm Tree (Ulmus laevis Pall.)
It is found mainly in riverbanks and floodplains of Europe and is also called as the stately elm or spreading elm. They are good shade trees commonly found in parks, streets, and cemeteries.
They have a smooth, whitish-gray bark at youth and a scaly, reddish-brown, deeply fissured bark at maturity. Its leaves are ovate, serrated, asymmetric, and glossy. It is dark green in the spring and turns yellow in the fall.
9. Siberian Elm Tree (Ulmus pumila)
This is a dwarf elm type known for its invasive qualities. It is native to Asia specifically in Mongolia, Korea, India, Tibet, northern Siberia, and Russia.
It has deciduous leaves that are typical for colder regions. It is also distinct for its winged seeds, brittle branches, and red flowers. Its bark is brownish-gray with deep fissures and scales all throughout.
10. Slippery Elm Tree (Ulmus rubra)
It is not as popular as the other elm tree types. It is also known as the red elm. This one rarely reaches maturity because it is vulnerable to many diseases including the Dutch elm disease.
It is, however, a popular medicinal tree because of its soft, slimy, inner bark used in treating cough, wounds, UTI, and diarrhea, among others.
The overall appearance of its bark is scaly, reddish-gray, and with long but shallow fissures. It has ovate, serrated leaves with a rough upper side and smooth underside. The foliage starts as red, turns dark green in the spring, and dull yellow in the fall.
11. Rock Elm Tree (Ulmus thomasii)
It is also called a cork elm because its branches have a thick, corky structure. It is found mostly as shade trees in the midwest USA including Michigan and Washington. Its leaves are green in spring and pale yellow in the winter.
The foliages are serrated, oval-shaped, hairy underside, and smooth upperside. Its bark is gray, deeply fissured, shaggy with irregular ridges. It loves heavy clay or loamy soils.
12. Wych Elm (Ulmus glabra)
It is also called as the Scotch elm and is considered as an English elm cultivar. It is known for its umbrella-shaped structure, the height of about 130ft, and sizable spread of at least 60ft. It is also distinct for its winged samaras and short yet fat branches.
Its bark is gray and smooth at youth but deep fissures will appear as it grows mature. It sports a yellow-green, serrated, and oval-shaped leaves. The foliage will turn yellow in the fall.
13. Winged elm tree (Ulmus alata)
It is called as such because of its thin, warty growths running through the length of its branches. It has a papery structure, sometimes resembling knots more than wings. The branches of this tree produce a round-shaped crown.
Its leaves are oval-shaped, lighter green in color, with jagged edges and hairy paler green undersides. The wings turn golden yellow in the summer and burgundy flowers appear before the leaves.
Its bark is dark brown with a gray tinge, scaly, and with furrowed ridges. It is the least shade-tolerant elm tree.
Frequently Asked Questions
Aside from the types of elm trees, there is other important information that you should know about this iconic tree.
For this section, we shall answer some of the most frequently asked questions about elm trees and some of its types. This supplementary information might come in handy later when you start planting your own elm tree.
Are elm trees dangerous?
Elm trees are generally non-toxic. Its bark is even used for traditional medicine to treat diseases in the digestive and urinary tract. This is not to be taken lightly though and apprehension should still be employed when it comes to the elm tree.
You have to remember that most elm trees if not all are vulnerable to the Dutch elm disease and the go-to treatment for this is applying insecticides along with the bark of the tree. And since it is the bark where the medicinal tree comes from, it might still be harmful because it was exposed to insecticides.
Other than this, elm trees could really be invasive too. It could block important passageways in the home like pipes and drainage. And since it spreads widely, the falling branches could be dangerous to your parked car or it might fall on you during windy seasons so best be careful when you are under elm trees.
What are elm trees good for?
Although the notorious Dutch elm disease has been pestering the longevity and health of this tree for more than 75years now, elm trees are still valuable in the timber industry.
Some elm tree cultivars like the cedar elm are cultivated for their wood which are used in crafts such as wood baskets, crates, fermentation barrels, and more. Its brittle branches are also used as firewood as it could easily catch fire. It is also used in traditional medicine, specifically its dried bark that is turned into medicinal teas.
For landscape purposes, elm trees are beautiful shade, canopy, and ornamental trees. They are dependable for their longevity, attractive for their unique characteristics, and are generally hardy. The only downside is that it is susceptible to diseases and its roots could invade water pipes and driveways.
What is the lifespan of an elm tree?
Elm trees are known for their longevity. At an average, elm trees live at a range of 60-100 years. Some elm trees have longer lives than others. These types live up to 150years. Some are not that sturdy because of diseases and could live only for 10-30years.
It has already been established that elm trees that contract the Dutch elm disease could only go as far as 15-30years.
Dwarf cultivars on the other hand get to live for 20-45years. Nonetheless, at a general account, elm trees are recognized for their longevity. This makes them a popular choice for urban shade trees.
Despite its vulnerability to disease, elm trees are dependable and attractive trees. They can withstand many growing conditions, they live long and can be used for many purposes.
They are not just functional for the shade they give but also for the timber they supply and the medicinal property that they offer. Aside from these outstanding credentials, elm trees also have types that are unique from one another.
They are most distinguishable for their leaves and their barks and also through their location and the critters they attract. With all of these, it should not surprise us why elm trees are loved.