Seed of the Week: Chinese Elm

Our mystery seeds from last week came from a Chinese elm tree, Ulmus parvifolia.

Because most of our American elms were destroyed by Dutch elm disease, people have started planting Chinese elms, which as the name suggests are originally from Asia. It is much more resistant to the Dutch elm disease.

Chinese elms produce numerous winged seeds, technically samara, in the fall. The samara are dispersed by the wind when they mature.

The seeds readily germinate in the spring. First, the root emerges.

The seed coat slides off, exposing the green, round cotyledons.

If the seed is in a suitable place to grow, the cotyledons emerge from the soil. Between them the first two true leaves begin to grow.

The little trees are all ready to take off. We have Chinese elm seedlings everywhere!

The leaves are simple (not compound), with teeth around the edges.

The mature tree is often grown in parks here in Arizona. It has a pleasant fan-shaped crown, and the branches drape nicely.

The most striking feature of the Chinese elm tree is the mottled and peeling bark. It often shows orange underneath.

Unfortunately I had on the wrong lens, so this photograph isn’t the best presentation of the full-sized tree.

Because of their unusual bark, and also probably because they produce seedlings so easily, Chinese elms are often used for bonsai.

It will be interesting to see how the Chinese elms fare as landscape trees over time. They definitely have good qualities, and less desirable qualities, as well.

Have you ever seen a Chinese elm? What do you think of them?


  1. kh

    i do and its a magical great grandmother tree of wisdom. I love it and it gives me great comfort

  2. kh

    to grow others, do we keep the seeds dry in the mean time (its late Nov) until spring and then plant them, or can we start now ?

  3. Roberta

    Do you have a sunny place to grow the seedlings over the winter? Here, we found our seeds germinated readily if planted in the fall, but you could try both ways and see what works best for you.

  4. Jesse

    I was wondering if you would be willing to ship some seeds or seedling to me? Feel free to contact.

  5. Roberta

    Jesse, I’m sorry to say all the Chinese elm trees on our street have been taken down. If I see one in the next week, I’ll let you know.

  6. Chris

    Roberta, why did they take them all down? Was there an issue with the trees?

  7. Roberta

    The trees do produce a lot of debris.

    The seeds also germinate readily here, which means having to constantly deal with seedlings cropping up where they aren’t wanted.

  8. unas

    can it grow in india??

  9. Roberta

    Oh yes. It is native to Asia, including the eastern region of India.

  10. S. Alan Schaefer

    I have a home with a 1955 chinese elm tree hedge.
    They are trimmed 3 times a growing season, to 4 foot., here in Wyoming. We are beginning to have some age issues. To replace, by seedling or 4-5 footers, is our question?

  11. Roberta

    Perhaps you can find someone who lives in your area to give you some advice? Readers have any suggestions?

  12. S.Rani

    chinese elm seeds are germinated in water or in soil….plz let me know

  13. Roberta

    You can start them in a moist paper towel and then transfer to soil. They germinate easily, though, so straight into the soil would also be fine.

  14. Christie

    Do these seeds require a cold period to germinate?

  15. Roberta

    Not in our experience. They germinate readily.

  16. Alan

    You need to have space if you intend to let this tree grow and become the Mother tree of your garden. It will spread as it gains height and if permitted will create a wonderful high, domed, shade area into which you will feel the air cooler on a hot day. As spring moves to summer the ends of the widely spread branches will grow quickly and arch downwards, often reaching the ground to create a vast garden room. The tree I have developed 5 main branches from a 5 foot trunk. The bark, as you have seen, is beautiful. If you want to give plants away this is very reproductive and seedlings will appear all around the area (not only in your yard) and be gaining height very quickly. I cannot say I have seen any particular insect attack occurring.
    I am on a 1 acre block in the Shoalhaven area of NSW Australia and we tend to have good rainfall (though a drought has just broken with many inches of rain after the recent, horrific fires which came as close to me as 20 miles).

  17. Roberta

    Wow, that is close!

  18. Angela Kraus

    These are a common landscape tree here on the Triangle of NC. Only recently, though, did I become aware of the seeds that produce such amazing bark. I went out to clean the snow (!) off my car and little seeds were all around. I asked them, “Wherefrom art thou?” and Google answered with your article. Gratitude!!

  19. Stephen

    They are an invasive tree that is a nuisance. They spread uncontrollably. They get in sewer lines come up through sidewalks and under foundations. Do not plant them. You cut one sprout and four more appear.

  20. John W

    We planted three Chinese Elms as street trees in our Virginia yard about 8 years ago. They grew fast, from about 7ft to 25ft or more now. They are beautiful trees, but not without issues. Like Bradford Pears, another fast grower, they require a lot of pruning to prevent bad limb branching and over density that’s prone to storm damage with their weak wood. And the tiny leaves and even tinier seeds make them a less than ideal spot to park a car under, especially in the fall and winter. But the worst are all the little volunteer seedlings that start sprouting in the spring and continue all summer—at least if you’re trying for a nice fescue grass lawn. You can pull them up if the ground is soft, where you’ll see an amazingly long taproot, at least relative to the “above ground” portion. At least twice, if not three times as long! Definitely a tree designed for survival in the most challenging of locations!

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