The past and present of elms

Published 6:15 am Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Elm trees have been appreciated by humans for many generations, primarily as a stoic large urban tree lining streets and shading landscapes. During the 18th and 19th centuries it was one of the most popular landscape trees in Europe and America. Native Americans also revered the tree for its medicinal qualities. We have several native species.

The most common elms are American, winged, and slippery elm. All three have an ashy gray bark with leaves that are spear shaped with a toothed edge with two different sized teeth, referred to as double serrated in forestry lingo. The leaves are also distinct for their asymmetrical base, where one side of the leaf blade attaches to the stem lower than the other, creating a curved offset look that is easy to identify. All elms have a small seed that has small round wings to travel on the wind.

American elm (Ulmus Americana) is the stateliest of the elms and popular as a city tree. Its fountain-like branching creates a beautifully arched canopy that is ideal for lining streets and provides a huge footprint of shade. It’s also prized for rapid growth, tolerance to pollution, strong limbs that resist wind damage, and leaves that decompose rapidly. Unfortunately, Dutch elm disease (yet another introduced problem) has destroyed many urban elms.

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Winged elm (Ulmus alata) is noted for the thin pair of corky wings that form on the branches. It’s common in the woods around here. Slippery elm (Ulmus rubra) has leaves that feel sandpapery, and an inner bark that is called mucilaginous, meaning it gets slimy when chewed or soaked in water. It has been used by Native Americans for many generations as a medicinal to dress wounds, sooth burns, and treat dry skin. It is also said to be useful to treat a cough, sore throat, and ulcers. The bark is commercially collected and sold for use as a healing herb. Powdered slippery elm bark is common in health food stores.

Elm has a very tough wood that is very difficult to split, so it is not popular for firewood. Back in the horse wagon days it was used for wheel hubs because of its strength. It was also a popular wood to use for coffins and chair bottoms.

Elms has been a standout tree throughout history, and so there are many noted historic trees on record. There’s the Treaty Elm in Philadelphia, where William Penn signed a treaty of peace with Native Americans. The Washington Elm in Cambridge Massachusetts was the tree under which George Washington is said to have taken command of the Continental Army. Most famous of all is the Liberty Tree on Boston Common, a huge canopied American elm which was a rallying point for the growing resistance to English rule.

Steve Roark is a retired area forester from Tazewell, Tennessee.