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What is a Chinese Elm?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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The Chinese elm of Ulmus pavifolia is an elm species native to Asia. It has been exported all over the world for use in landscaping, and as a result, it is extremely widespread. Many garden supply stores carry Chinese elm seedlings, or can order them by request, and Chinese elms can also be ordered directly through nurseries which specialize in ornamental trees for landscaping.

These trees can grow up to 60 feet (18 meters) tall, with a spreading growth habit which can cause the Chinese elm to grow almost as wide as it is tall, and a trunk which often forks early in life, creating a deep saddle-like shape. Chinese elms have roughly oval-shaped toothed leaves with a leathery texture and a rich green color, and their gray-green bark naturally sheds as the tree grows older, revealing layers of brown to cinnamon-colored bark underneath. The distinctive appearance of maturing Chinese elms explains another common name for the tree, the “Lacebark Elm.”

From the perspective of gardeners and landscapers, the Chinese elm has a very distinct advantage over other elms and some other ornamental trees: it is extremely hardly. Chinese elms can cope with urban smog, generally poor air quality, bad soil, and indifferent watering. They are also naturally resistant to many insect pests, and they resist Dutch Elm Disease, the tree disease which has felled many urban trees in North America.

Because of their hardiness, Chinese elms are often selected for urban landscaping along streets and highway medians. They can also be grown in the home garden, for gardeners who wish to take advantage of their hardiness and relatively low-maintenance growth habits. However, Chinese elms do need to be carefully pruned and shaped as they mature in order to develop a healthy, well-balanced shape, so these trees cannot be planted and then ignored.

Chinese elms can also be extremely messy, which is a major drawback of these otherwise quite pleasant landscaping trees. Their deciduous leaves can look quite pleasant in the fall, but they end up all over lawns, sidewalks, and cars, along with sticky sap. The shedding bark can also make a mess year-round, clogging drains and becoming a general nuisance in communities with a large patch of Chinese elm trees. Chinese elms are also difficult to eradicate in communities where they have become undesirable, cheerfully putting up seedlings after they are cut down and developing tangled root systems which can tear up sidewalks, streets, and driveways.

HomeQuestionsAnswered is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HomeQuestionsAnswered researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Arlien — On Jun 01, 2014

Only choose the Chinese Elm if you want a lifetime of weeding its seedlings. Yes, it's easy to grow, and grows fast, but it's like an alien trying to take over the world! And if you don't catch the seedling, it grows deep and will be another tree before you know it. You'll need to shovel deep to get it out, even when the stalk is only 1/2 an inch! Here, we call them the weed tree. If you want a forest, go for it! Otherwise, you're asking for trouble!

By anon337857 — On Jun 08, 2013

Japanese Maples are very nice but can't take too much summer heat. The C. elm can handle anything, but will take over that area if not pruned, but will probably act as a filter to bad air and is a nice and fast growing tree. Pick the Elm. I have one and really like it. --Jk

By anon334718 — On May 15, 2013

If you are planting Chinese elms, you should be aware that they can grow to be very large; start shedding seedpods in early autumn, followed by seeds and then leaves. This goes on until late spring. The leaves are copious and do not rot down easily.

Their sap rains down during autumn, making any paving nearby extremely sticky.

They propagate very easily, resulting in enormous crops of seedlings in weed like proportions.

They also provide wonderful shade during the hot weather of summer, but native parrots and cockatoos enjoy the sap and continually pluck off small shoots.

By goldengirl — On Jun 08, 2011

@SKahn - I'd use a Chinese elm. I had a few in the yard at my previous house and loved them. They look beautiful and were so easy to take care of. I didn't have too much of a problem with leaves.

By SKahn — On Jun 06, 2011

I'm trying to decide between planting a Chinese elm or a Japanese maple in my front yard. I do live near a highway, so I'm worried about smog and air pollution damaging the tree. I think the Japanese maple looks prettier, but the Chinese elm sounds very tough.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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