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Quick facts

Common name: English elm

Scientific name: Ulmus procera

Family: Ulmacaea

Origin: non-native

Mature trees grow to 30m and can live for more than 100 years. The bark is grey brown, rough and fissured, often with suckers growing from the base of the trunk. The twigs are finely hairy. Buds are oval, pointed and hairy.

Look out for: the distinctive asymmetric leaf bases common to all elms. Leaves are rough to the touch on the top surface.

Identified in winter by: the sparse reddish hairs on buds and twigs. Each bud is above a leaf scar.

What does English elm look like?

English elm leaves on white background

Credit: Brian Legg / WTML

Leaves

Smaller than those of the wych elm at 4–9cm in length. They are round to oval, toothed with a rough, hairy surface. They have the characteristic asymmetrical base that other elms have, and taper to a sudden point at the top.

English elm buds flower on white background

Credit: Victor George / Alamy Stock Photo

Flowers

English elms are hermaphrodites, meaning both male and female reproductive parts are contained within the same flower. Flowers are dark pink to red and hang in tassels, appearing between February and March.

English elm branch in fruit

Credit: Bob Gibbons / Alamy Stock Photo

Fruits

Once they’ve been pollinated by wind, the flowers develop into tiny winged fruits, known as samaras. These are dispersed by wind.

Not to be confused with:

Other elms or hazel (Corylus avellana). English elm has fewer serrations along the leaf margin which helps tell it apart from wych elm (Ulmus glabra).

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Where to find English elm

Elm grows best in well-drained soil in hedgerows and woodland. It can usually tolerate a range of pH levels in soil.

Despite its common name, it may have been introduced to the UK by Bronze Age farmers, or could be native to southern England only. In the past, English elm dominated the British landscape, but has been ravaged by Dutch elm disease since the 1960s. Now it is only found occasionally in hedgerows or woodland.

Red squirrel in an English elm

Credit: Albaimages / Alamy Stock Photo

Value to wildlife

Many birds and some small mammals eat elm seeds and the leaves provide food for the caterpillars of many moths, including the peppered, light emerald and white-spotted pinion moths. Caterpillars of the white-letter hairstreak butterfly feed on elms and the species has declined dramatically since Dutch elm disease arrived in the UK.

Did you know?

Elms were dedicated to Morpheus, the god of sleep.

Mythology and symbolism

Elms used to be associated with melancholy and death, probably because the trees can drop dead branches without warning. Elm wood was also the preferred choice for coffins.

Uses of English elm

Elm wood is strong and durable with a tight-twisted grain, and is resistant to water. It has been used in decorative turning, and to make boats and boat parts, furniture, wheel hubs, wooden water pipes, floorboards and coffins.

Threats and conservation

Elms are highly susceptible to Dutch elm disease, a fungal disease which devastated populations since it arrived in the UK in the 1960s.

They can also be affected by galls from aphids, which migrate from fruit cultivated trees.