TREE OF THE MONTH: Chinese elm
For a beautiful shade tree that looks good all year long, you can’t beat the Chinese elm. This hardy specimen has many lovely features that make it a standout among landscape trees, including its light-colored mottled bark; its long, pendulous branches; and its broadly rounded crown.
Its trunk has remarkable distinguishing bark — the light-gray outer layer, over time, flakes off in patches, exposing the orange to light-green underlayer and creating a delicate lace-like pattern overall — the basis for its other common name, the “lacebark elm.” The trunk and branches grow in sinuous curves and twists, developing an artistic silhouette.
The leaves are leathery; light-green when new, turning to dark-green; up to 2 inches in length and 1 inch in width; and elliptical in shape, with serrated edges and a well-defined point at the tip. The leaves alternate on either side of the long downward-trailing twigs, which toss gracefully in the breeze. In the fall and winter, in colder areas, the leaves typically turn a light yellow and, sometimes, a stunning purple and red. Chinese elms are mostly evergreen in our Mediterranean climate but can be entirely deciduous in cooler places.
In July and August, dense clusters of small greenish-yellow flowers appear but are rather inconspicuous, being mostly hidden by the foliage. In late fall or early winter, each pollinated flower develops into a “samara,” which is a single seed surrounded by a rounded to elliptical paper-like wing. Aeronautical, the samara will flutter down from the tree and be disbursed by the wind. Butterflies and birds appreciate this elm for its safe nesting sites and as a reliable food source of nectar and seeds.
Chinese elm is a medium-sized tree that can reach 40 to 60 feet tall with a 30- to 50-foot spread. Under ideal conditions, it can grow rapidly to more than 30 feet tall in less than 10 years! After that height spurt, growth is directed to the spread, ultimately providing a very generous canopy of shade. Since it will become a sizable tree, be sure to plant it with consideration of this fact — give it ample space in which to grow fully and to accommodate its large root system.
This elm is highly prized for its ability, once it is established, to endure harsh conditions and still survive beautifully. It is quite drought- and heat-tolerant. It prefers well-drained soil, but it will grow in all soil types. It is highly resistant to the diseases (particularly Dutch elm disease), as well as insects that detrimentally — and often fatally — affect other elm species. It is highly adaptable and requires little maintenance, other than an occasional pruning.
Chinese elm is native to a large area in Southeast Asia, extending from India to northern and central China, Korea and Japan. Its botanical name is Ulmus parvifolia. The genus name, Ulmus, is Latin for “elms”; the specific epithet, parvifolia, also comes from Latin and means “with small leaves,” in reference to the smaller leaves of this elm as compared to other elm species.
Many varieties or cultivars of the Chinese elm have been developed to have specifically desirable attributes: ‘Brea’ has larger leaves and an upright growing habit; ‘Drake’ has smaller leaves and branches that are more weeping; and ‘True Green’ is more reliably evergreen. As a result of this intentional cultivation, there is always a variety of Chinese elm that would be the perfect choice to enhance your landscape or garden. There are also several dwarf varieties that are very popular with bonsai enthusiasts!
Chinese elms grace many streets in Santa Barbara. Mature specimens can be seen in these locations: all around Dwight Murphy Field on Ninos Drive and Calle Puerto Vallarta; on the 500 block of Garden Street; and, on the Mesa, on Las Ondas, Las Olas Avenue, Del Mar Avenue, the 1200 and 1300 blocks of San Miguel Avenue, Selrose Lane and Via Sevilla.
Tree-of-the-Month, presented by Santa Barbara Beautiful, increases awareness and appreciation of Santa Barbara’s many outstanding trees. The nonprofit organization partners with the Parks and Recreation Department to fund tree planting along city streets.