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A Study of Trees-part one Elm trees

Updated on August 2, 2015

Narrow -leaved elm Ulmus minor



There are many ways which help the observant to recognise trees. The way many begin their identification progression is to study the leaf and its characteristics. These forms and characters do not ,however, help us in the winter months when the trees are bare.

Hence one needs some indications that will differentiate the trees at that time of the year. It has to be therefore a character which is evident through out the year,which will be most helpful to those that are interested in the study of, or indeed, any one who is interested in trees. It needs to be some trait that will mark its individuality and separates it at a glance from all other trees.

This could be the general form of the tree,its mode of branching,bark bud or fruit. In this series I will look in detail at various trees and with the aid of photographs and images will endeavour to help those who wish to be able to identify trees. In the first of this series we look at the elms which are a complicated group at first glance.

Elms are dominant in this image

These elms growing in  Preston Parks,Coronation Garden at Brighton {south coast of England} are considered to be the largest elms in the world.
These elms growing in Preston Parks,Coronation Garden at Brighton {south coast of England} are considered to be the largest elms in the world. | Source

The Elm trees

The Elm belongs to the Rosales order of trees and the family Ulmaceae within that order. They are placed in the genus Ulmus. They tend to grow with strong, upright trunks,but these differ in character,according to the habitat of the species or variety to which they belong.

In some the branches and head are generally subordinate to an elongated,conspicuous central trunk as is usually seen in the appearance of Ulmus minor {formerly Ulmus campestris } or the field elm and most of its varieties. In the species Ulmus montana the central column becomes lost or divided at a greater or less height,in the great diverging boughs or arms that form the head of the tree.

To the botanist and the dendrologist they have long proved to be a puzzling genus and great doubt and uncertainty have always existed,as to what should be considered a species and what should be considered as varieties. The difficulty it is said, may be traced back to the fact well known to cultivators, that the seed of the elm does not always prove true to the tree from which it is gathered, but is apt to produce varieties differing more or less,from the parent plant. The result therefore, of this propensity in the genus to vary in character and appearance,when originating from seed, renders the discrimination of the species from varieties a matter of great uncertainty. { however, the tree does produce suckers which are propagated to breed a true species of the parent}

Linnaues,for example called all elm trees as Ulmus campestris. However, Sir J.E. Smith enumerates five species of British elms which he referred to as U.campestris,U.subcrosa. U.major. U. montana and U.glabra. Later Louden referred to them as only two species only. U.campestris [Now Ulmus minor} and U. montana. Botanists and dendrologists have remained loyal to these two species only However, there are many varieties of these two species.

To the layman this is as clear as mud,so here I will attempt to describe the two species last mentioned in our review.

The elms are mostly trees of the first rank attaining ,in favourable situations, dimensions scarcely inferior to the Oak**,The Chestnut**, the Beech** or the flowering Ash**. They live to a great age and produce hard and valuable timber. They range from North America, and Eurasia ,southwards across the equator to Indonesia.

During the 19th century in particular many species and cultivars were planted in parks and gardens in Europe,North America and even Australia.

** These trees have already been reviewed in my hubs on the subject.

Beetle feeding galleries in elm bark


The notorious Dutch Elm disease.

One can not write about Elm trees without mentioning the disease commonly referred to as the Dutch Elm Disease. It is an unfortunate fact that the mature elm trees of Europe and North American origin have been wiped out by the notorious Dutch elm disease which is caused by a microfungus spread by elm bark beetles. It is believed to have originated in Asia but had been introduced to North America and Europe through imported timber. It was discovered in Europe in 1910 and to North America in 1928. This subject alone would take many pages and therefore is only coincidently mentioned in this review.

Ulmus minor leaf with a Euro coin to give an idea of their size.


Avenue of English elms

Melbourne Australia
Melbourne Australia | Source

Description of the Ulmus minor { U.campestris}

This species is referred to as the English,or Small-leaved Elm. {see photograph at the top of the page} .The tree described here is the typical form of the species. According to John Selby,{1842} " This tree was regarded as a tree of 'perfection and beauty' in the southern and Midland parts of England,where it not only formed the avenues of the finest public walks and drives in the vicinity of the towns and cities, and enters largely into the proportion of trees which surround the residence and adorn the parks of our nobility and gentry. But,it is also the common and prevailing hedgerow timber in many districts,among which we need only to particularize the Valley of the Thames and the Severn"

In this species in its finest form it produces a tall,spiring habit of growth. It consists of a straight ,continuous trunk,to which, throughout its entire length,the branches are subordinate. It grows rapidly and often to the height of between seventy and ninety feet,with a trunk of four to five feet in diameter. To reach this size it takes approximately one hundred years.

The sprays or twigs of this species is light and slender ,the shoots springing from an acute angle and arranged in an alternate manner. the mode of growth gives the young branches a flat or fan-like form,which,however,become less apparent as the trees gain age,and as one year's shoots is added to another till at length the weight of the spray becomes to great for the branch to support it at its original angle,and is obliged to become more or less pendent in form.

The leaves are smaller than that of its many varieties. They are doubly toothed or serrated,rough textured and hard to the touch.they are of a dark green colour when mature and slightly shining. Like those of all elms the leaves are unequal at the base and broadest in the middle tapering to wards each end. The mid and cross ribs proceeding from it are prominent and strongly marked. It is worthy of note,that the unequal bases of some specimens are more strongly developed than in others.

Elm foliage

Leaf venation { network of veins}.

The principle vein which continues from the very short stalk can not be describes a s a typical mid-vein,for it does not divide the leaf blade into two equal parts,the base of one side of the stalk is extended further down than the other.

The leaf margins are very prettily cut into small sharp pointed segments,or teeth. The more observant will see that there are two series of these teeth,one smaller and more acute series running between the larger series.

Very prominent veins branch on either side,and in alternation to each other,from the principle vein, and run to the points of the teeth or fork near their apices. One of the forks entering one of the marginal teeth and the other entering an adjoining one. A hand lens or magnifying glass is needed to see the ramifications over the leaf surface of the minute leaflets.

There are three principle stages of colouration of this species of elm. There is the light green of spring, the darker and more sombre green of summer and the yellow of autumn. This autumn yellow may be so bright as to give the tree a golden hue. Between the summer green and the golden hue there are many various and beautiful gradations.

the bright foliage of Elm

Taken on the island of Oland Sweden
Taken on the island of Oland Sweden | Source

Flowers and seed capsules {fruit}

The flowers which appear before the leaves are in tufts upon the shoots of the preceding year,and are of a purplish red colour. folllowing the flowers are the fruits {seed capsules} termed by botanist as the Samara, is oblong deeply cleft on one side and smooth.

Ulmus minor fruits {seed capsules}


Description of Ulmus Montana {glabra}

This species is often referred to as the Wych elm or an even older title of Mountain wych and is sometimes referred to with the Latin specific name of glabra.This species although it grows in the southern parts of the UK,it is in the north into England,and especially further north into Scotland that this tree grows most abundantly. Here it is common in the mountainous districts, for it is here, that it finds the soil congenial to its nature. This is generally rich,loose and frequently mixed with debris and rocks,yet retains a moist substrate. the long tough roots find the water and they are often associated with streams or rivers in the vicinity.

Instead of the upright pyramidal growth oft he previous species,wych elm forms a large spreading tree,generally loosing its central column at no great height from the ground, in the great diverging limbs which form its magnificent head. The branches from the weight of the foliage and rampant growth,are usually drooping or pendulous and hang in rich festoons

Ulmus glabra winter

Source Nijboer collection
Source Nijboer collection | Source

Flowers and fruits of Ulmus glabra


The leaves

The leaves are much larger than the English Elm or any of its allied kinds. They are broadly elliptical with a longer pint and are more deeply serrated, the upper surface is roughened by with small ,hairy tubercles. The under surface is downy, with the ribs hairy at their origin and sub-divisions.

The bark of the young shoots are downy but the branches never become uneven. The flowers are on a longish stalk and more loosely tufted than those of the English elm. The Samara {fruit} is nearly orbicular with a notch reaching about half way down the seed.

unlike the former species the wych elm never produces suckers from the roots,though a bunch of parasitical shoots are not uncommon issuing from the bottom of the trunk. This lack of suckers in respect of propagation is amply compensated by the production of perfect seeds.

Ulmus glabra foliage and fruits


Gilpin descriptive narrative

Gilpin made this descriptive narrative in respect of this species---" We consider the wych elm or Scottish elm,as one of the most beautiful trees in the British sylva. The trunk is so bold and picturesque in form,covered as it frequently is,with huge excresenses, the limbs and branches also are so free and graceful in their growth,and the foliage is so rich,without being heavy or clumpsy as a whole,and the head is generally so finely massed,and yet so well broken,as to render it one of the noblest park trees,and, when it grows wildly and the rockery scenery of its native Scotland, there is no tree which assumes so great or so pleasing a variety of character;our associations with it in such scenes lead us to prize it highly"

Ulmus glabra bark



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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Adam Lee Anderson,

      hello, your observations of the trees splitting during ice storms is very interesting. Thank you for your visit and for your kind and appreciated comments. Best wishes to you.

    • Adam Lee Andersen profile image


      5 years ago from Overland Park, Kansas

      I had one of the Ulmsa minor trees growing in my backyard as a kid. I can remember how the seed capsules would blanket the deck in late spring. They aren't the hardiest tree around. During an ice storm, hundreds of these would split themselves down the middle. Great hub, love the leaf photos.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      hello Eddy, glad you enjoyed reading about the Elm and for leaving your kind and supportive comments. Best wishes to you.

    • Eiddwen profile image


      6 years ago from Wales

      Another wonderful lesson o the great Elm Tree and how sad that the Dutch Elm disease wiped out so many.. Like Deb IU can also remember playing 'propellers'.

      Great pics on the barks of each tree also and especially liked the one showing the beetle feeding galleries on the elm bark.

      Voted up and shared as always and here's onto the second in this series.

      Enjoy your day.


    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      hello Deb, you are very welcome,glad to have rekindled some memories for you. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      It is most interesting to see the differences in your elm trees. Dutch Elm Disease is a real horror, having taken so many trees. There are still a few around. We used to play with the "propellers" as kids. They bring back many fine memories, so thanks for stirring those up a little.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Devika, Glad to have stirred up some memories for you. Your visit is always appreciated and thank you for your Vote up. Best wishes to you.


      Hello again my friend. Thank you for your kind comment. Best wishes to you.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      6 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      great work

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      6 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      I t has been a while since I have heard of the Elm tree. You have refreshed my mind on this beautiful tree. Great photos and always a fantastic write up from you. Voted up!


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