Elm trees have been loved 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 used the tree as an important source for medicinals. Several species are native to our area.
The most common elms in our area are the 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, called double serrated in forestry lingo. The leaves are also distinct for their asymmetrical base, where one side of the leaf blade attached to the vein lower than the other, creating a curved offset look that is easy to identify. All elms have a small seed that has two small round wings.
American elm (Ulmus Americana) is the most stately 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 its rapid growth, tolerance to pollution, strong limbs that resist wind damage, and leaves that decompose rapidly. Unfortunately Dutch elm disease has destroyed many urban elms.
Winged elm (Ulmus alata) is noted for the thin pair of corky wings that form on the branches. It’s pretty 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. Powdered slippery elm bark can still be found 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 have stood out in the crowd of trees 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.