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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.