American Elm

Ulmus americana

Elms in Central Park 2011

Elms in Central Park, 2011 (photo – Jim Henderson)

Who – that loves a tree – has not stood spell-bound and compared the giant elm to the human frame?  From the majestic trunk extend the powerful arms.  There are the “joints” and, finally, a division into the fingers on the tops of which are borne the modest flowers and those marvelous structures we call “leaves”.  Oh, the beauty of a leaf!  How charming its veining! How divine its mission of preparing oxygen for the animal kingdom!John Davey [1] [2] [5]

The American Elm is  native to eastern North America, occurring from Nova Scotia west to Alberta and Montana, and south to Florida and central Texas. [3]


Lafayette Street, Salem, MA    (public domain image)

In the 19th and early 20th century, the American Elm was a common street and park tree owing to its tolerance of urban conditions, rapid growth, and graceful form.   This however led to extreme over-planting of the species, especially to form living archways over streets, which ultimately produced an unhealthy monoculture of elms that had no resistance to disease and pests. [2]

The American elm is highly susceptible to Dutch Elm Disease (DED) [3] [4].   DED is  is spread by the elm bark beetle.  The disease was first reported in the United States in 1928, with the beetles believed to have arrived in a shipment of logs from The Netherlands destined for use as veneer in the Ohio furniture industry.  [4]  Of the estimated 77 million elms in North America in 1930, over 75% had been lost by 1989. [4]  The largest surviving urban forest of elm trees in North America is believed to be in the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba, where close to 200,000 elms remain. [4]

The good news is that scientists have been working on disease resistant strains since DED first hit, and a number of varieties are now available. [6] [7].  If you want t plant a tree, this would be a good one to consider.


Elm Leaf – (photo: Matt Lavin, Bozeman, MT)

The American Elm occurs naturally in an assortment of habitats, most notably rich bottomlands, floodplains, stream banks, and swampy ground, although it also often thrives on hillsides, uplands and other well-drained soilsOn more elevated terrain, as in the Appalachian Mountains, it is most often found along rivers. The species’ wind-dispersed seeds enable it to spread rapidly as suitable areas of habitat become available. [3]


Identification and Description

The American Elm is a deciduous tree which, before the introduction of Dutch elm disease, commonly grew to 100 ft tall with a trunk > 4 ft DBH supporting a high, spreading umbrella-like canopy.

Adapted to Georgia hardiness zones: 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b. Atlanta is zone 7b

Supported Wildlife and Other Uses

Painted Lady

Painted Lady

It provides cover, nesting sites and food for birds and small mammals. [8]

The leaves of the American Elm serve as food for the larvae of various lepidopterans including Painted Lady, Eastern Comma, Mourning Cloak, Columbia Silkmoth and Question Mark. [8] [10]

Champion American Elm Trees in Atlanta and Georgia


Atlanta Champion Trees – full list
Georgia Champion Trees – full list
Intown Hawk – Condensed Atlanta and Georgia List

References and Additional Information

[1]  “the animal kingdom”:  John Davey, “the Trees of the Lord”, Chautauquan 41, no. 4 (June 1905): 319 – quote as reprinted in [2]
[2]  Urban Forests – Jill Jonnes – Viking, 2016
[3]  Wikipedia: Ulmus americana
[4]  Wikipedia: Dutch Elm Disease
[5] – The Davey Tree Legacy: Since 1880
[6]  The Morton Arboretum: Elm Cultivars
[7]  Michigan State University: Return of the American Elm
[8]  Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center: Ulmus Americana
[9]  Missouri Botanical Garden: Ulmus Americana
[10]  Butterflies and Moths of North America