Ulmus americana (American Elm)
|Also known as:||White Elm|
|Life cycle:||perennial woody|
|Habitat:||part shade, sun; average to wet soil; floodplains, deciduous forest, swamps, fields, fencerows|
|Bloom season:||March - May|
|Plant height:||60 to 125 feet|
|Wetland Indicator Status:||GP: FAC MW: FACW NCNE: FACW|
|MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):|
|National distribution (click map to enlarge):|
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Dangling clusters of 5 to 15 flowers from lateral buds on 1-year-old branches, appearing before leaves emerge. Flowers have no petals, the light green to red, cone-shaped calyx is only about 1/8 inch wide with 6 to 9 irregular, papery lobes that wither quickly. In the center is a 2-parted, creamy white, feathery style and 6 to 9 erect, white stamens that are longer than the calyx, the stamen tips initially reddish turning purplish black. Flower stalks are hairless and ¼ to ¾ inch long.
Leaves and bark:
Leaves are simple and alternate, somewhat variable in shape but generally oblong-elliptic, widest near or above the middle, 3 to 5¾ inches long, 1½ to 3½ inches wide, abruptly tapered to a sharply pointed tip, asymmetrical at the base, on a short, smooth to hairy stalk. Edges are coarsely double toothed, veins are straight and not forking at the tip. Upper surface is dark green and smooth to slightly rough; the lower surface is light green, hairless to softly hairy, typically with tufts of hairs in the vein axils.
Young twigs are brown and hairy or smooth, the buds brown with pointed tips and reddish scales that are somewhat hairy, especially around the edges, with flower buds larger and more oval-elliptic. Older branches are hairless, the bark turning gray and may split into plates, with brown patches between.
Fruit is a winged seed called a samara: flat, egg shaped, 1/3 to ½ inch long, surfaces hairless but with a dense fringe of short, white hairs around the edge, the tip often cleft with two hook-like lobes.
Once upon a time, right here in Minnesota and not so long ago, American Elm was one of the most common trees in our southern hardwood forests, but also present in just about very corner of the state as well. It formed a beautiful large, vase shaped crown and it was easy to dig, transplant and grow. For those reasons our forefathers lined our city streets with tens of thousands of them and our streets were made shady, cool and beautiful. Many people born before 1960 may have some memories of those days, but soon after that, things changed quickly. Unfortunately, while some of our ancestors were concerned with providing a beautiful world to live in, others were more intent on making money.
Even though North America was still heavily forested at the time, in 1931 a Cleveland businessman figured he could make some good money by importing elm logs from Europe, so he did. Unfortunately those logs also brought in invasive European elm bark beetles and, more importantly, the highly invasive and destructive Dutch Elm Disease (DED). The first diagnosed Minnesota case was in St. Paul in 1961 and it was soon found at outstate locations, with evidence that once more, human movement of diseased wood was the cause. The rest is history with tens of thousands of forest and urban trees lost across the state, at great expense. Many communities lost nearly 100% of their boulevard trees. American elm is still with us today due to its prolific seed production and rapid growth that allows it to regenerate quickly and stay just a step ahead of the eventual loss of these younger trees. Its unlikely however it will ever play a significant role as a climax forest species that it once did.
There are two other native elms in Minnesota, both susceptible to DED and are now somewhat uncommon. Red Elm (Ulmus rubra) can be distinguished by its round, button-like flower clusters with stalkless flowers, seeds with short, soft hairs across its surface but not around the edges, leaves that are rough on both surfaces with veins that fork near their tips, especially on the upper half, and bark that is not strongly banded in cross section. Rock Elm (Ulmus thomasii) has looser, pendulous racemes, leaf bases that are nearly symmetrical, lacks tufts of hairs in leaf vein axils, and has very distinctive corky ridges on older twigs and branches.
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Where to buy native seed and plants ↓
- American Elm tree
- American Elm tree
- American Elm tree
- classic 'vase' shape
- bark with brown patches showing
- smooth twig with buds
- more leaves
- more flowers
Photos by K. Chayka taken in Ramsey County. Photos courtesy Peter M. Dziuk taken in Aitkin, Anoka and Kanabec counties.
Have you seen this plant in Minnesota, or have any other comments about it?