Tree Facts: Siberian elm trees

Farm Forum

Siberian elm was first introduced into the United States in the 1860s from the Far East. In the early 1900s it was planted at the USDA Experimental Station at Mandan, North Dakota, where it flourished. Consequently it was selected by the USDA for planting in shelterbelts across the prairies in the aftermath of the Dustbowl. Its rapid growth and tolerance for drought and cold made it a great success. It is still the one of the best choices of species for establishing quick protection in shelterbelts as it can grow 3-5 feet per year. During the 1950s, the tree was also widely promoted as an alternative to Privet for fast growing hedges across most of the country. However, the species later proved susceptible to several diseases. Since 1997 the USDA has been working in earnest to develop an improved cultivar at its Plant Materials Centers in Akron, Colorado and Sidney, Nebraska. They hope to have that new improved Siberian elm released by 2020.

The Siberian elm, is native to central Asia, eastern Siberia, Mongolia, Tibet, northern China, northern India and Korea. Its wood is very brittle and breaks easily, creating constant litter. It is also known as the Asiatic elm, Chinese elm, dwarf elm and little leaf elm. It is a broadleaf tree that grows into a rounded and open shape, up to 60 feet tall. New branches are thin, gray and droop somewhat as they grow. The mature bark of the trunk is gray and furrowed. In the spring the buds are reddish-brown, egg-shaped and are in tight clusters. Each bud produces an inch long flower and produces a single-seed in a flattened, circular fruit that is notched at the top. Dark green leaves are 1-2½ inches long and half as wide and are elliptical in shape, with serrated edges, pointed tips and veins in a fishbone pattern. Leaf color in the fall is yellow. The tree is short-lived in Great Plains rarely reaching more than 60 years of age, but in its native environment may live to between 100 and 150 years.

Siberian elm is resistant to Dutch elm disease, which has been devastating to American elms. It has been used to develop Dutch elm disease resistant hybrids and breed resistance to the disease into other susceptible elms. However, it is does get other diseases, such as bacterial wetwood disease, powdery mildew, cankers and leaf spot. However, it is the most resistant of all the elms to verticillium wilt. It is highly susceptible to damage from many insects and parasites, including the elm leaf beetle and aphids.

The Siberian elm has naturalized over time and has become invasive across most of the United States. It can be found growing naturally in abundance along railroads, adjacent to field windbreaks, near vacant buildings, abandoned lots and on disturbed ground. The plant can grow in a wide variety of conditions and soil types. It will tolerate poor soil, drought, extreme cold, air pollution, and some salinity.

Any tree that will grow under the harsh conditions of the Great Plains is usually valued. However, there are times when Siberian elm needs to be controlled. Options for controlling seedlings include hand pulling, hoeing or tilling, small trees can be removed with a grub hoe or a weed wrench, and larger trees can be girdled between late spring and mid-summer, taking care just to remove the outer layer of bark. Girdling will deprive the tree of nutrients and it will slowly die within 1-2 years. Larger trees can also be cut down, but cutting through the entire trunk will often trigger re-sprouting below the cut, and they must be repeatedly removed for several years. One way to prevent re-sprouting is to apply stump sprout preventer immediately on the fresh cut so it will be systemically drawn into the tree roots.

My sources for this news release were the USDA Forest Service and Wikipedia. If you would like more information about “Siberian elm,” contact Bob Drown @605-244-5222 Extension 109 or by e-mail at