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American Elm

Ulmus americana

American Elm (Ulmus americana), also known as white elm, water elm, soft elm, or Florida elm, is most notable for its susceptibility to the wilt fungus, Ceratocystis ulmi, commonly called Dutch elm disease. This wilt has had a tragic impact on the American elm.

Scores of dead elms in the forests and urban areas are testimony to the seriousness of the disease. Because of it, American elms now comprise a smaller percentage of the large diameter trees in mixed forest stands than it was just a few decades ago.

Native Range

American elm is found throughout Eastern North America. Its range is from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, west to central Ontario, southern Manitoba, and southeastern Saskatchewan; south to extreme eastern Montana, northeastern Wyoming, western Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma into central Texas; east to central Florida; and north along the entire east coast.

Reproduction and Early Growth

Flowering and Fruiting: The process of flowering, seed ripening and seed fall in American elm takes place in the spring throughout the range. The glabrous flower buds swell early in February in the South and as late as May in Canada. The flowers appear 2 — 3 weeks before leaf flush. Soon after wind pollination occurs, the fruit ripens, and seed fall is usually complete by mid-March in the South and mid-June in the North.

American elm flowers are typically perfect and occur on long, slender, drooping pedicels, about 1" long, in 3- or 4-flowered short-stalked fascicles. The anthers are bright red, the ovary and styles are light green, and the calyx is green tinged with red above the middle. With controlled pollinations, floral receptivity is greatest when stigma lobes are reflexed above the anthers. The trees are essentially self-sterile. A test in Canada showed only 1.5% viable seed from self-pollinated flowers. Pollination may be hampered in a wet spring since the flower anthers will not open in a saturated atmosphere.

Seed Production and Dissemination: Seed production in American elm may begin as early as age 15 but is seldom abundant before age 40. When mature, American elm is a prolific seed producers Trees as old as 300 years have been reported to bear seeds. In closed stands, seed production is greatest in the exposed tops of dominant trees. The winged seeds are light and readily disseminated by the wind. Although most seeds fall within 300' of the parent tree, some may be carried up to a 1/4 mile or more. In river-bottom stands, the seeds may be waterborne for miles.

Adverse weather may reduce the seed crop. Spring frosts can injure and kill both flowers and fruit. Observations in Minnesota showed that while nearly ripe seeds were not injured by night temperatures of 27° F for several successive nights, most were killed a week later when the temperature dropped to 19° F and remained below freezing for 60 hours.

Mammals and birds also may reduce the seed crop. The flower buds, flowers, and fruit are eaten by gray squirrels. The seeds are also eaten by mice, squirrels, opossum, ruffed grouse, Northern bobwhite, and Hungarian partridge.

Special uses

Before the advent of Dutch elm disease, American elm was prized for its use as a street tree. It was fast growing, hardy, tolerant to stress, and appreciated for its characteristic vase like crown. Beautiful shaded streets in many cities attested to its popularity.

The wood of American elm is moderately heavy, hard, and stiff. It has interlocked grain and is difficult to split, which is an advantage for its use as hockey sticks and where bending is needed. It is used principally for furniture, hardwood dimension, flooring, construction and mining timbers, and sheet metal work. Some elm wood goes into veneer for making boxes, crates, and baskets, and a small quantity is used for pulp and paper manufacture.


Specimen trees ideal for the American Landscape