Elm, field (Ulmus minor)

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Field elm, also known as smooth leaved elm, is a variable species across much of Europe and is almost certainly not native to Britain.

Common name: field elm, smooth leaved elm

Scientific name: Ulmus minor
Family: Ulmaceae

UK provenance: non native

Interesting fact: before metal was widely available, many English towns had elm water mains, including Bristol, Reading, Exeter, Southampton, Hull and Liverpool.

What does field elm look like?

Overview: mature trees grow to 30m. The bark is grey brown, often with crossing ridges. The twigs are brown and occasionally have corky 'wings' or ridges.

Field elm is an ancient introduction to the UK and a number of distinct forms are known, English elm being one of them. In the past these distinct forms were known as species, subspecies or varieties in their own right. However, in light of DNA research, we now have evidence that many of these are actually single clones. There is no longer a case to recognise any varieties or subspecies of field elm in Britain.

Field elm may be developing a resistance to Dutch elm disease because it can reproduce more readily from seed.

Leaves: glossy, flat and smooth but leathery to the touch, and double toothed, 6-15cm in length. They have a characteristic asymmetrical base and taper to a sudden point at the top. 

Flowers: elms are hermaphrodites, meaning that 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 smooth on their top surface.

Could be confused with: other elms or hazel (Corylus avellana).

Identified in winter by: it has grey-brown bark with crossing ridges

Where to find field elm

Its resistance to Dutch elm disease means many specimens still exist in England, most notably in East Anglia and southern England. 

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 field 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

Field elm is highly susceptible to Dutch elm disease, a fungal disease which devastated populations of elms since it arrived in the UK in the 1960s. However, because it is better at reproducing from seed than other elm species, some of its saplings are showing some resistance to the disease.

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

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