Ulmus americana (American Elm)

Plant Info
Also known as: White Elm
Family:Ulmaceae (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):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

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Detailed Information

Flower: Flower shape: indistinct Cluster type: raceme

[photo of flowers] 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: Leaf attachment: alternate Leaf type: simple

[scan of leaves] 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.

[photo of hairy twig with flower and leaf buds] 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.

[photo of mature trunk] Older bark has interlacing ridges and deep furrows. Trunks are up to 45 inches diameter at breast height.

Fruit: Fruit type: seed without plume

[photo of fruit] 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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More photos

Photos by K. Chayka taken in Ramsey County. Photos courtesy Peter M. Dziuk taken in Aitkin, Anoka and Kanabec counties.


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