How do you identify an Elm tree? (With Pictures)


Elm Tree

Elm is a beautiful deciduous tree found in the Northern Hemispheres.  It belongs to the Genus-Ulmus and family-Ulmaceae. It has a variation of about 30 species, and some of the species are semi-deciduous in nature. The Elm tree not only adds beauty to the landscape, but the timber of the Elm tree has lots of uses.

Not very long ago, Elm trees were found all over Europe and the U.S.A. in large numbers. But the dreadful Dutch Elm Disease wiped out some 20 million trees from the U.K. between 1960 – 1970. The U.S.A. and other European countries also lost a comparable number of Elm trees. Even today, D.E.D. is the greatest threat to the Elm trees worldwide.

Elm Tree Identification

The leaves, bark, trunk, flowers and the animals on the trees are quite helpful in identifying the Elm trees.

Locating an Elm tree in a park or garden is rather easy. With relatively fewer trees around, spotting the huge Elm tree is not challenging. But in the wild forest or afforested land, pinpointing an Elm tree is not so easy.

The Elm tree has some exceptional features and peculiarities, which gives it away. It has very typical leaves and bark (more on these as we go further in the article). The Elm tree will always have a split trunk. Elm trees never grow with a single trunk. In some cases, you can see an Elm tree with only one trunk (generally in house gardens and parks). But if you take a closer look, you can see one of the branched trunks is cut off. The cut mark will always indicate an additional trunk. It is not a multi-trunked tree. There is only one trunk coming out of the ground, and then later it splits into 2 or 3 trunks.

Most of the Elm trees have a very pronounced fountain or vase shape.  Ball-type crown and weeping styles do exist in the family of Elm, but those are not seen very often. The animals and birds on the Elm tree are also a good indication of its identity.

You can see woodpeckers, raccoons and the squirrels on the Elm tree very prominently. Deer and rabbits relish the bark of the tree. It is a ubiquitous sight to see the rabbits eating away the bark of the tree, and so do the deers. Caterpillars love eating the leaves of the Elm tree.

The roots of the Elm trees are very shallow, and you can see them as you move around the tree. At times, they come out of the ground at different places around the tree.

The identifying features also depend on the species of the Elm tree in question. The following are the most popular varieties:

  • American Elm found all over the U.S.A., but more prominently in the  Eastern parts. It is a tall tree with a height of around 80 -100 feet and the trunk has a maximum diameter of 4 feet. It has a high umbrella-like canopy high. It has small purple-brown flowers. It bears fruits which are known as samara and are 2cm by 1.5 cms. 
  • English Elm is very prominent in western Europe in countries like the UK, France, and Spain.  The bark of the tree is grey-brown in color and has prominent vertical fissures like any other tree. The twigs have fine hairs on them and you see the sucker coming out from the base of the tree.   
  • Camperdown also called the weeping Elm, because of the shape of the foliage, and is located in the U.K. It has a very distinctive weeping style foliage, which you cannot miss. The tree is quite wide and shady. 
  • Cedar Elm is also known as the Basket Elm and Texas Cedar is found in the southern part of North America. The trunk of the Cedar tree is tall and straight. The crown is narrow and oblong shaped. It does not spread very wide. It has serrated oval leaves of the length of 1 – 2.5 inches. The width of the leaf if close to 1 inch.
  • The Chinese Elm grows in China, Japan and the U.S.A. It is very popular to make a bonsai tree. Unlike the elm tree leaves, the Chinese elm leaves have double serrations on the sides of the leaves. It grows to a height of 30 -60 feet in height. Unlike other elm trees, the Chinese elm tree has very smooth bark
  • The slippery Elm secretes viscous liquid through its bark and it is generally found in the Eastern part of North America. 
  • Siberian Elm is found in Siberia, Mongolia, India, China and the U.S.A. It grows to around 70 feet in height. It has rounded but slender and spreading branches. The bark is light gray in color with regular furrows.

How fast do Elm trees grow?    

Elm Tree

Considering the various varieties of the Elm, the average growth rate is about 2 – 3 feet/year.

It would be best if you always thought about where you wish to plant the Elm tree and what is your objective. If you want an Elm for decorative or beautification purposes, a beautiful and fast-growing Elm variety is appropriate. If you are interested in the timber of the Elm tree, find a slow-growing tree. They always produce excellent quality wood.

The growth rate varies even during the lifespan of the tree. It could be fast at some stage of life and slow down at some other stage.  So the instantaneous growth rate of any single phase of the Elm tree will also vary.

In the case of American Elm(Ulmus Americana):

  • 3- 4 feet of a sapling from a nursery, planted on the ground, grows to a height of  25-30 feet in 8 -10 years. The average growth rate turns out to be 3 feet/year.
  • It will grow to a height of 100 feet in 40 years. That averages to a growth rate of less than a foot per year
  • Finally, after attaining the height of 100 feet, the growth rate further falls to about half an inch in a year.

So, in the lifespan of the same tree, we have three different growth rates. Whenever you get an Elm tree to plant, find out the growth rate for different stages. Else, knowing only one growth rate suitable for a particular stage of the tree may create confusions and doubts about the health of the plant as it grows. The height of the tree is an indication of the current growth rates. If the height is less than 25 feet then the growth rate is 3 feet each year, beyond 25 ft till 40 feet it will be about 1 foot / year and beyond 100 feet it is just half an inch. A single storied house is about 12 feet in height. Compare the height of the tree with any house nearby. This should give you a fair approximation of the height of the tree. 

The Chinese Elm (Ulmus Parvifolia) has an average growth rate of 3 feet/year and attains to the height of 40 -50 ft in 15 years. However, on the other hand, the Siberian Elm (Ulmus Pumila) grows only to a height of about 25 inches in a year. And the Chinese ‘Evergreen’ Elm grows to 30 feet in just five years. That is an average growth rate of 6 feet in a year. Ulmus Americana ‘Princeton’, a cultivar of the American Elm has a whopping growth rate of 4 – 6 feet /year.

As against all these outliers, the Ulmus Americana ‘Valley forge’ grows 26 feet in 12 years. That is just within the average of 2 -3 feet /year growth rate.

What is the life expectancy of an Elm tree?

The Elm trees as a family were robust and healthy trees and had a long life of around 300-400 years. But after D.E.D destroyed the Elm trees, the lifespan has decreased substantially. The maximum life expectancy is just about 300 year, with the average expectancy hovering around 100 years.

Under excellent conditions and with exceptional care, the Ulmus Americana (American Elm ) can survive maximum for 300 years. In normal circumstances, life would be around 100 years.  The Ulmus Crassifolia has a life of 100 plus years.

The Ulmus Procera (English Elm) earlier could live up to 400 years. Now it just manages around 100 years.   

How big do Elm trees grow?

Elm Tree

The dimensions of the tree greatly depend on the species and the growing conditions. On an average the Elms can grow to about 90-110 feet tall and the canopy width can range from 50 -70 feet.

There are some species of Elms which can grow very tall. The Ulmus Procera (English Elm) grows to a magnificent height of 135 feet whereas the Ulmus Rubra (Slippery Elm) goes a little further to attain a height of 135 feet. Ulmus Villosa (Cherry Bank) has variation from 60 -100 ft in height.

The moderate height varieties range from a height of 50 -90 feet. Ulmus pumila has a height anywhere between 50 ft – 70 ft. The American Elm generally reaches to a height of 90 feet though some are known to reach 125 feet also.

On the lower range, Camperdown Elm (Ulmus glabra) has a height of 15 to 30 feet. Ulmus davidiana also ranges from a height of 30-50 feet.

We have Elm trees in various height categories. If you wish plant Elm decide what height would be right for you and select accordingly. Elm trees are known to drop their branches from a great height because of wind. So if you are planning to plant Elm in your home garden or any such place where human thoroughfare is common, do not plant very tall Elms. It could be dangerous.

How does an Elm leaf look?

The leaves of the Elm tree are dark green in color. It is oval to oblong in shape. The leaves are arranged alternatively on the twig. It is smooth to feel on the top and fuzzy in texture on the underside. The base of the leaf blade is asymmetric. This type is very typical of the Elm leaf. Leaf-blade has prominent veins seen on both sides. The sides of the leaves are serrated.

Elm Tree leaves

Apart from the above characteristic features of the leaf, different varieties of Elm may show some differences and peculiarities.

American Elm Leaf: The leaves are shaped oblong to ovate. The sides of the leaves have double serration. The leaf blade narrows down gradually to form a pointed tip. It is 20 cm long with double serrations on the side. The base of the leaf is asymmetric.

European White leaf: The leaf is quite broad and the breadth and length of the leaf is 7 cm. Even the tip is quite broad and suddenly narrows down to form the tip. It also has double serration on the sides of the leaf.

Dutch Elm leaf: It is a delicate egg-shaped leaf. The length of the leaf is 7 cm, and it has a short petiole. The Dutch Elm leaf also has double serration.

Essentially, the difference in the leaves of the species is in the size, serration and general shape of the leaf. Sometimes the texture could be different. If you recognize the leaf of one Elm tree, you can recognize the leaf of any Elm tree.

What does Elm tree bark look like?

Elm Tree bark

Generally, the bark of the Elm tree is grey or greenish-grey in color. The bark is very peculiar in texture. From top to bottom and also on all sides, the bark has ridges running to form some irregular shapes. It is very rough to feel. In the case of a relatively young tree, the bark is very spongy to touch. The springy feeling reduces as the tree matures, but one can still feel it.

The bark of the Elm tree is believed to have medicinal properties. Though there is no direct evidence of the therapeutic properties of the bark, it is used to treat stomach disorder, diarrhea, wounds, infertility and many such diseases.

The rabbits, and the deer, love to eat the bark of the Elm tree. The Elm tree bark is susceptible to lots of diseases, including the dreadful D.E.D. You should carefully examine the bark of the Elm tree for any unusual signs and symptoms.    

How do you tell the difference between Ash and Elm trees?

Elm vs Ash Leaves

The Elm tree and the Ash tree look similar, and sometimes it is confusing to distinguish between them.

The easiest difference to locate is in the leaves. The Elm trees have an independent single simple leaf connected to the twig. But the Ash tree has compound leaves made up of several small leaflets.

Both the trees have ridges on the bark. The ridges of the Elm tree are very erratic, not forming any patterns. There is no regularity to the ridges. However, the ridges on the bark of the Ash tree are very regular to create diamond shapes throughout the bark.

The Elm tree generally is vase-shaped. And the Ash tree foliage is a round crown-shaped. 

Whenever you are out to pick up an Elm tree, look out for all these differences. It is always better to pick your Elm from a known source or a reputed nursery.

How far apart should Elm trees be planted?

It is crucial to keep a safe distance of 60 -70 feet between the Elm trees.

Even now the Elm trees are susceptible to disease and the fear of the Dutch Elm Disease is always in the air. The branches of Elm trees should not rub with each other. They should not be touched by anything from any side. Rubbing of branches could lead to wounds on the branches, and these attract the dangerous beetles. They are the carriers of the fungus of the fatal D.E.D.

The crown of the Elm tree generally has a diameter of 40 -50 feet. With a space of 70 feet between the trees, we can ensure sufficient gaps between the crown of the adjoining trees. It will have at least a 10 -15 feet gap, which is good and desirable.

Any time you plant an Elm tree, there should be a 10 -15 feet gap between the widest part of the crown of the adjacent trees. Accordingly,  there is a calculated gap between the trees.

Also, keep your Elm tree at least 15 feet away from any construction. It will ensure enough space for the roots of the Elm tree to grow and spread. When you are measuring the distances and selecting spots for the Elm tree, remember that the tree needs six hours of full sunlight every day. So bear this fact in mind while choosing the places, for the trees. The trees will need only well-drained soil, and they cannot tolerate wet feet. So these also have to be checked up with the places you select and measure to plant the Elm trees.

When should you prune an Elm tree?

The best time to prune the Elm is in early spring and definitely before the 31st of March. That is the safest time when the wound can heal well, and the foliage can recover in the spring bloom.

Carefully and correctly, one must time the pruning of the Elm tree. Any miscalculation or carelessness may make your tree sick and infected.

In the fall season, there are lots of fungal spores in the air. It is very easy for them to settle down and infect the wounds of the pruned tree. The tree will never get the time and chance to recover from the pruning wound. Never prune the Elm tree between mid-April to late July.

Always disinfect your hand saws or chain saws with bleach and water to prevent any kind of infection to the Elm tree.

What is the Elm tree used for?

The Elm tree wood is of high quality. It is water-resistant and can be bent by using steam. All these properties of the Elmwood make it useful for many applications like:

  • Being a durable wood, it is ideal for making furniture. Elmwood furniture is preferred for its strength and grains.
  • Since it is a dense wood, which does not split easily, it is also used to make a wooden panel.
  • Elmwood is waterproof and can be polished to an excellent finish. The wooden flooring of Elmwood looks very elegant.
  • Coffins are made out of Elmwood
  • It is used to make musical instruments because of its superb acoustic resonance property.
  • The Elmwood has a strong resistance to water, and hence ships are made of Elmwood.
  • It is also used to make barrels. 

Lindsey Glenn

I've been learning about gardening since 2015, helping friends and family to grow their trees. I am passionate about trees and love sharing everything I learn about them.

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