Elm, English (Ulmus minor 'Atinia')
English elm is a deciduous tree native to southern and eastern Europe.
Common name: English elm
Scientific name: Ulmus minor 'Atinia'
UK provenance: native
Interesting fact: before metal was widely available, many English towns had water mains supplied from pipes made from elm wood, including Bristol, Reading, Exeter, Southampton, Hull and Liverpool.
This species was previously referred to as Ulmus minor var. vulgaris. English elms have been found to be genetically identical clones of a single tree, said to be Columella's 'Atinian Elm', once widely used for training vines. It's assumed this species was brought to the British Isles for that purpose.
What does English elm look like?
Overview: 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.
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 a characteristic asymmetrical base and taper to a sudden point at the top.
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 in February and March.
Fruits: once pollinated by wind, the flowers develop into tiny winged fruits, known as samaras. These are dispersed by wind.
Look out for: all elms have distinctly asymmetric leaf bases. Leaves are rough to the touch on the top surface.
Identified in winter by: buds and twig are covered in sparse reddish hairs. Each bud is above a leaf scar.
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 countryside landscape, but has been ravaged by Dutch elm disease since the 1960s. Now it is only found occasionally in hedgerows or woodland.
Value to wildlife
Many birds 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.
Mythology and symbolism
Elms used to be associated with melancholy and death, perhaps because the trees can drop dead branches without warning. Elm wood was also the preferred choice for coffins. In Lichfield it was the custom to carry elm twigs in a procession around the Cathedral Close on Ascension Day, then to throw them in the font.
How we use 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.
Elms are highly susceptible to Dutch elm disease, a fungal disease which devastated populations since it arrived in the UK in the 1960s.
Elms can also be affected by galls from aphids, which migrate from fruit cultivated trees.