Siberian Elm is not Chinese Elm

It happens all the time, people call me and tell me about trees that are so big that they can’t get their arms around them and, unrelated but still slightly humorous, they tell me about their Chinese Elms. For the record, I have seen many trees that you can’t get your arms around (which doesn’t make that nutty measuring system any less ambiguous), but the Chinese Elms that I hear about have never, ever, ever, not once, actually been Chinese Elms – they have always been Siberian Elms.

I have gotten used to it now. If someone says they have a Chinese Elm, I just assume that it is a Siberian Elm. It isn’t that big of a deal, except that there really is a Chinese Elm and I often wonder if the next call about a Chinese Elm will, in fact, yield a Chinese Elm. I like both American Elm and Siberian Elm and assume that I would like Chinese Elm as well, and I don’t want to miss my chance to mill one if it ever comes along.

The elm issue moved to the forefront after a recent trip to the Missouri Botanical Gardens when I ran across an actual Chinese Elm conveniently marked with a little official sign. I have never seen one in real life, at least that I know of, and this was a great opportunity for a close-up view of a confirmed Chinese elm tree. I took that opportunity to snap some photos for comparison. Nonetheless, just assume that your Chinese elm is actually a Siberian elm, unless it looks a lot like the photos below.

Chinese elm is more oriental in shape. In this case, the tree has a short trunk with a lot of taper and crooked smaller branches.

Chinese elm is more oriental in shape. In this case, the tree has a short trunk with a lot of taper and crooked smaller branches.

The bark on a Chinese elm looks nothing like other elms and unlike any domestic species. It is flat and scaly with multiple colors from silver gray to rusty orange.

The bark on a Chinese elm looks nothing like other elms and unlike any domestic species. It is flat and scaly with multiple colors from silver gray to rusty orange.

The bark has the same scaly texture throughout the lower portion of the tree.

The bark has the same scaly texture throughout the lower portion of the tree.

Thanks to the Missouri Botanical Gardens for clearly marking this Chinese elm.

Thanks to the Missouri Botanical Gardens for clearly marking this Chinese elm.

 

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About wunderwoods

Hi! My name is Scott Wunder and I am the owner of WunderWoods Custom Woodworking. We build wine cellars, built-ins and furniture from local woods, here in St. Louis, MO. Recently, I finished a three-year term as the President of the St. Louis Woodworkers Guild, which had me writing a monthly article for our newsletter. I love to write, especially about wood, and found that I still had more to say. Every day I run into something wood related that I realize some of my customers don't know and this seems like a great forum for sharing what I have learned (instead of telling the same story to each person). The main thing to remember is that I try to keep it light and as my wife always reminds people that have just met me, "He is joking."

4 responses to “Siberian Elm is not Chinese Elm”

  1. Dan Fall says :

    Here in Mn, the Siberian elm is a decent tree. Thus far, it has been hardier than its cousin and is not susceptible to classic elm disease. Almost everyone dislikes American elm. It is second class to oak, and dies too often…it volunteers everywhere. I saw it in a floor in Wisconsin and thought it surpassed oak for beauty. And, of course, in England, lots of things were built with elm. And I am not sure if it was ‘American’ elm , but I doubt it…thanks for the post.

    • wunderwoods says :

      Dan,

      Thanks for the input. I was at an arborist conference last year and there was a lot of talk about Siberian elm from a presenter from Minnesota. Siberian elm was brought in to replace dying American elm trees. It does not die from Dutch Elm disease, but has other issues that make it less desirable as a tree. It is brittle and will easily break in storms and it is often tormented by other issues that leave it looking less than perfectly healthy all year long. The presenter from Minnesota, specifically addressing power line issues and breaking branches, put Siberian elm at the top of the “Do Not Plant” list.

      Both American and Siberian elms are prolific at spreading seeds, which helps them pop up in unplanned locations.

      I think American elm is one of the prettiest woods around and I am a big fan of Siberian elm too. I often recommend them to my customers for woodworking projects.

      I have no input on elms from England since I have no official experience with them, but I am going to put my money on them not being American elm.

  2. Barbie says :

    Without doubt there is a Siberian elm in our front yard which spread literally hundreds of annoying weed seeds everywhere around the property I have been caretaking past year. The bark is dark and coarse. In the back yard, on the other hand is an elm sapling, uniform in shape with very light colored, smooth bark. Initially, I suspected the Siberian in the front yard to be its parent, but the light color throws me off, making me think it is the Chinese variety. I’ve found nothing to describe the Siberian elm sapling and wondering if you can help.

    • wunderwoods says :

      That’s the point of my post. There aren’t many Chinese elms and since you have a Siberian in the front, the other is most likely a Siberian as well. It is difficult to identify young trees by the bark because young bark is so much different than mature bark. Look at the new growth on your Siberian and see if it looks like the other to be sure. Find diameters of the same size to compare.

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