American Elm, the Most Popular of Urban Shade Trees

One of the 100 Most Common North American Trees

Vivid green tree at sunrise in public park in Portland, Oregon

Getty Images/Zeb Andrews

American elm is the most popular of urban shade trees. This tree was planted along downtown city streets for decades. The tree has had major problems with Dutch elm disease and is now out of favor when considered for urban tree planting. The vase-shaped form and gradually arching limbs make it a favorite to plant on city streets.

This native North American tree grows quickly when young, forming a broad or upright, vase-shaped silhouette, 80 to 100 feet high and 60 to 120 feet wide. Trunks on older trees could reach to seven feet across. American Elm must be at least 15-years-old before it will bear seed. The copious amount of seeds can create a mess on hard surfaces for a period of time. American elms have an extensive but shallow root system.

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Description and Identification of American Elm

Elm leaves (Ulmus Americana) against white background, close-up

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  • Common Names: white elm, water elm, soft elm, or Florida elm
  • Habitat: American elm is found throughout eastern North America
  • Uses: Ornamental and shade tree

The six-inch-long, deciduous leaves are dark green throughout the year, fading to yellow before dropping in fall. In early spring, before the new leaves unfold, the rather inconspicuous, small, green flowers appear on pendulous stalks. These blooms are followed by green, wafer-like seedpods which mature soon after flowering is finished and the seeds are quite popular with both birds and wildlife.

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The Natural Range of American Elm

American elm is found throughout eastern North America. Its range is from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, west to central Ontario, southern Manitoba, and southeastern Saskatchewan; south to extreme eastern Montana, northeastern Wyoming, western Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma into central Texas; east to central Florida; and north along the entire east coast.

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The Silviculture and Management of American Elm

american elm wood plane
A wooden hand plane made of American elm.

Jim Cadwell/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

According to the Fact Sheet on American Elm - USDA Forest Service", Once a very popular and long-lived (300+ years) shade and street tree, American Elm suffered a dramatic decline with the introduction of Dutch elm disease, a fungus spread by a bark beetle.

The wood of American Elm is very hard and was a valuable timber tree used for lumber, furniture, and veneer. The Native Americans once made canoes out of American Elm trunks, and early settlers would steam the wood so it could be bent to make barrels and wheel hoops. It was also used for the rockers on rocking chairs. Today, the wood that can be found is used mainly for making furniture.

American Elm should be grown in full sun on well-drained, rich soil. If you plant American Elm, plan on implementing a monitoring program to watch for symptoms of Dutch elm disease. It is vital to the health of existing trees that a program be in place to administer special care to these disease-sensitive trees. Propagation is by seed or cuttings. Young plants transplant easily."

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Insects and Diseases of American Elm

diseased elm tree
American elm with Dutch elm disease.

Ptelea/Wikimedia Commons

Pests: Many pests may infest American Elm, including bark beetles, elm borer, gypsy moth, mites, and scales. Leaf beetles often consume large quantities of foliage.

Diseases: Many diseases may infect American Elm, including Dutch elm disease, phloem necrosis, leaf spot diseases, and cankers. American Elm is a host for Ganoderma butt rot.


Pest information courtesy of USFS Fact Sheets

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Nix, Steve. "American Elm, the Most Popular of Urban Shade Trees." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, Nix, Steve. (2021, September 8). American Elm, the Most Popular of Urban Shade Trees. Retrieved from Nix, Steve. "American Elm, the Most Popular of Urban Shade Trees." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).