History in the United States
Siberian elm was introduced to the U.S. in the 1860's for its hardiness and fast growth in a variety of moisture regimes and habitats, including droughts and cold winters. It is resistant to Dutch elm disease. This elm continues to be promoted, especially in the Great Plains in spite of weak limbs and susceptibility to insect attack.
General: Elm Family (Ulmaceae). Siberian elm (Ulmus pumila) is an introduced, fast-growing, small tree, five to ten meters high. The leaves are alternate, simple, elliptic to oblong-lanceolate, usually simple serrate and 2.54 to 8 cm long. The flowers are greenish, clustered, short pediceled and appear with or before the leaves from March through April (Vines 1960). The bark is light grayish-brown, irregularly furrowed, and often streaked with stains caused by bacterial wetwood. The fruit is a long and broad samara, appearing from March through April, composed of a central, dry, compressed nutlet surrounded by a thin wing. (Ibid.).
Distribution: Siberian elm is a fast-growing tree that was introduced to the United States in the 1860's. Native to northern China, eastern Siberia, Manchuria, and Korea. It is the hardest of all elms and does well even in areas with cold winters and long periods of summer droughts. Because this, elm tolerates a variety of conditions such as poor soils and low moisture, it is found in dry regions, along roadsides,
in pastures and grasslands. For current distribution, please consult the Plant profile page for this species on the PLANTS Web site.
Chinese elm, dwarf elm, Asiatic elm
Range and Habitat in Illinois
Distribution in the United States
Siberian elm is known to occur in 43 states (USDA PLANTS Map) and reported to be invasive in natural areas in 25 states (WeedUS Database).
Localities documented in Tropicos sources
Canada (North America)
Russian Federation (Asia)
South Korea (Asia)
United States (North America)
Note: This information is based on publications available through Tropicos and may not represent the entire distribution. Tropicos does not categorize distributions as native or non-native.
- Anonymous. 1986. List-Based Rec., Soil Conserv. Serv., U.S.D.A. Database of the U.S.D.A., Beltsville. http://www.tropicos.org/Reference/1103
- Voss, E. G. 1985. Michigan Flora. Part II Dicots (Saururaceae-Cornaceae). Bull. Cranbrook Inst. Sci. 59. xix + 724. http://www.tropicos.org/Reference/1700
- Correll, D. S. & M. C. Johnston. 1970. Man. Vasc. Pl. Texas i–xv, 1–1881. The University of Texas at Dallas, Richardson. http://www.tropicos.org/Reference/1493
- Great Plains Flora Association. 1986. Fl. Great Plains i–vii, 1–1392. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence. http://www.tropicos.org/Reference/637
- Fernald, M. 1950. Manual (ed. 8) i–lxiv, 1–1632. American Book Co., New York. http://www.tropicos.org/Reference/1327
- Hickman, J. C. 1993. Jepson Man.: Higher Pl. Calif. i–xvii, 1–1400. University of California Press, Berkeley. http://www.tropicos.org/Reference/40453
- Munz, P. A. 1974. Fl. S. Calif. 1–1086. University of California Press, Berkeley. http://www.tropicos.org/Reference/1719
- Munz, P. A. 1968. Suppl. Calif. Fl. 1–224. University of California Press, Berkeley. http://www.tropicos.org/Reference/1718
- Flora of North America Editorial Committee, e. 1997. Magnoliidae and Hamamelidae. 3: i–xxiii, 1–590. In Fl. N. Amer. Oxford University Press, New York. http://www.tropicos.org/Reference/24627
- Flora of China Editorial Committee. 2003. Fl. China 5: 1–506. Science Press & Missouri Botanical Garden Press, Beijing & St. Louis. http://www.tropicos.org/Reference/1024907
- Sherman-Broyles, S. L. 1992. Ulmaceae, Genus Ulmus. 26 pp. http://www.tropicos.org/Reference/44967
- Todzia, C. A. & J. L. Panero. 1998. A new species of Ulmus (Ulmaceae) from southern Mexico and a synopsis of the species in Mexico. Brittonia 50(3): 343–347. http://www.tropicos.org/Reference/1008641
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Ulmus pumila is easily grown in any well-drained soil type but prefers well-drained fertile soil. This species prefers full sun and succeeds well in arid regions. The tree also grows in moist soils along streams. It invades dry and mesic prairies, including sand prairies, drought resistant and fairly wind tolerant.
Siberian elm is a fast-growing tree in the elm family (Ulmaceae) distinguished by small toothed leaves about 1-2½ in (3-7 cm) long and half as wide, and pointed at the tip. Unlike other elms, the leaf base is usually symmetrical, forming a nearly even "V". Leaves are smooth and dark green above, paler and nearly hairless beneath, and alternate from side to side along twigs. Mature trees reach a height of 50-70 ft. (16-22 m.), with a round crown of slender, spreading branches. The bark is rough, gray or brown, and shallowly furrowed at maturity. Twigs are nearly hairless with small, blunt buds. Flowering occurs in the springtime. The small greenish flowers lack petals and occur in drooping clusters of 2 to 5. After flowering, a single seed forms in the center of each smooth, flattened, circular, ½ in (10-15 mm) wide fruit.
Other species of elms (Ulmus) and the close relative Zelkova, especially younger plants, look similar to Siberian elm. Some may even confuse it with choke-cherry (Prunus serotina) and hackberry (Celtis sp.). The native slippery elm and American elm typically have leaves that are greater than 3 in (7.3 cm) long, with unequal heart-shaped leaf bases, and leaf margins with double teeth.
Range and Habitat in Illinois
Habitat in the United States
Dry and mesic prairies and areas along stream banks in Minnesota and forested areas and high elevations in Arizona.
Propagation by Seed: Siberian elm seeds should be sown as soon as ripe in a cold frame. Excessive drying and dewinging should be avoided as they reduce viability (Dirr & Heuser 1987). Twelve to twenty seeds are sown per linear feet in drills ten inches apart and covered ¼ inch with firmed soil. The seedbeds should be kept moist, but not particularly shaded. When the seedlings are large enough to handle, place them into individual pots and grow them in the greenhouse for the first winter. Plant them into their permanent positions in late spring or early summer of the following year.
Life History and Behavior
Biology and Spread
Seeds are produced early in spring and spread by the wind. Germination rate is high and seedlings soon establish in the bare ground found early in the growing season.
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Ulmus pumila
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Ulmus pumila
Public Records: 1
Specimens with Barcodes: 6
Species With Barcodes: 1
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: NNA - Not Applicable
Rounded National Status Rank: NNA - Not Applicable
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: GNR - Not Yet Ranked
Considered a noxious weed in New Mexico. Please consult the Plants Web site and your State Department of Natural Resources for this plant’s current status, such as, state noxious status and wetland indicator values.
Cultivars, improved and selected materials (and area of origin)
Readily available through commercial nurseries.
Considered invasive by several sources. Consult the sources cited on the Invasive portion of the PLANTS Web site.
Siberian elm has been planted in the Upper Midwest in shelterbelts and as a shade trees along boulevards and in parks (Rosendahl 1955). Some of the plantings have proved successful while others have not, because the seeds were derived from climatically different areas of the species geographical range, which varies in the level of winter hardiness (Ibid.).
Siberian elm seeds with three to eight percent moisture can be stored at 36 to 40ºF in sealed containers for eight years (Dirr & Heuser 1987). Seedlings should not be allowed to grow in a nursery bed for more than two years because the plant will develop a taproot that make lifting harder and reduces outplanting survival rates.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Ethnobotanic: The dried inner bark was grounded into a powder and used as a thickener in soups or added to cereal flours when making bread. The immature fruit was used to produce a sauce and a wine (Facciola 1990). The hardy, heavy tough wood was used for agricultural implements and boat making (Vines 1987).
Agroforestry: Ulmus pumila is used in tree strips for windbreaks. They are planted and managed to protect livestock, enhance production, and control soil erosion. Windbreaks can help communities with harsh winter conditions better handle the impact of winter storms and reduce home heating and cooling costs.
Ecological Threat in the United States
Dry to mesic prairies and stream banks are vulnerable to Siberian elm invasion. Thickets of seedlings soon form around seed-producing trees, bare ground areas, animal and insect mounds, and other disturbed areas. Wind carries seed to distant areas where new colonies can form. This tough exotic survives under conditions not easily tolerated by other species, allowing it to take advantage of open ground and resources otherwise used by native plants. Fast growing seedlings of Siberian elm quickly overtake native vegetation, especially shade-intolerant species. This often leads to invasion by additional weedy species, compounding the problem.
Ulmus pumila, the Siberian elm, is native to Central Asia, eastern Siberia, Mongolia, Xizang (Tibet), northern China, India (northern Kashmir) and Korea. It is also known as the Asiatic Elm, Dwarf Elm and (erroneously) Chinese Elm. It is the last tree species encountered in the semi-desert regions of central Asia. Two varieties are recognized: var pumila and var. arborea, the latter known as Turkestan elm. Ulmus pumila has been widely cultivated throughout Asia, the Americas and, to a lesser extent, southern Europe.
The Siberian Elm is usually a small to medium-sized, often bushy, tree growing to 10–20 metres (33–66 ft) tall, with a trunk up to 80 centimetres (31 in) d.b.h.  The leaves are deciduous in cold areas, but semi-evergreen in warmer climates, < 7 cm long and < 3 cm broad, with an oblique base and a coarsely serrated margin, changing from dark green to yellow in autumn. The perfect, apetalous wind-pollinated flowers emerge in early spring, before the leaves; unlike most elms, U. pumila is able to self-pollinate successfully. The wind-dispersed fruit develops in a flat, oval membranous wing (samara) 1–1.5 centimetres (0.39–0.59 in) long and notched at the outer end. The tree is short-lived in temperate climates, rarely reaching more than 60 years of age, but in its native environment may live to between 100 and 150 years  .
Typical 'long shoots' of pendulous forms of Ulmus pumila
Compact, semi-evergreen form of Ulmus pumila (photo Ronnie Nijboer)
Pests and diseases
The tree has considerable variability in resistance to Dutch elm disease. Moreover, like many other elms in North America, it is highly susceptible to damage from many insects and parasites, including the elm leaf beetle Xanthogaleruca luteola, powdery mildew, cankers, aphids, and leaf spot. In the Netherlands U. pumila was also found to be susceptible to coral spot fungus Nectria cinnabarina, while in Italy, the species was also found to have a slight to moderate susceptibility to Elm Yellows. However, U. pumila is the most resistant of all the elms to verticillium wilt.
Cultivation and uses
Introduced into Spain in the 16th century, and from the 1930s into Italy, U. pumila has naturally hybridized with the Field Elm U. minor (see below, Invasive species and spontaneous hybridization). In Italy it was widely used in viniculture, notably in the Po valley, to support the grape vines until the 1950s, when the demands of mechanization made it unsuitable.
U. pumila was introduced to North America by Frank Meyer  who, whilst in the employ of the USDA, made several collecting expeditions to the Far East. The tree was initially cultivated at the USDA Experimental Station at Mandan, North Dakota, where it flourished. It was consequently selected by the USDA for planting in shelter belts across the prairies in the aftermath of the Dustbowl disasters, where its rapid growth and tolerance for drought and cold initially made it a great success. However, the species later proved susceptible to numerous maladies. Attempts to find a more suitable cultivar were initiated in 1997 by the Plant Materials Center of the USDA, which established experimental plantations at Akron, Colorado and Sidney, Nebraska. The study, no. 201041K, will conclude in 2020.
The species has a high sunlight requirement and is not shade-tolerant; with adequate light it exhibits rapid growth. The tree is also fairly intolerant of wet ground conditions, growing better on well-drained soils. While it is very resistant to drought and severe cold, and able to grow on poor soils, its short period of dormancy, flowering early in spring followed by continuous growth until the first frosts of autumn, renders it vulnerable to frost damage.
As an ornamental U. pumila is a very poor tree, tending to be short-lived, with brittle wood and poor crown shape, but has nevertheless enjoyed some popularity owing to its rapid growth and provision of shade. The Siberian Elm has been described by Prof. Michael Dirr as "one of, if not the, world's worst trees...a poor ornamental that does not deserve to be planted anywhere". Yet in the USA during the 1950s, the tree was also widely promoted as a fast growing hedging substitute for Privet, and as a consequence is now commonly found in nearly all states. It is the improved variant of the Turkestan Elm U. pumila var. arborea that is lately seen more often in gardens and referred to as the 'wonder hedge' (Ulmus pumila celer), being both dense and fast-growing, taking as little as two years to reach fence height.
Invasiveness and spontaneous hybridization
In North America, Ulmus pumila has become an invasive species in much of the region from central Mexico  northward across the eastern and central United States to Ontario, Canada. It also hybridizes in the wild with the native U. rubra (slippery elm) in the central United States. In South America, the tree has spread across much of the Argentinian pampas In Europe it has spread widely in Spain, and hybridizes extensively there with the native U. minor, contributing to conservation concerns for the latter species. Research is ongoing into the extent of hybridisation with U. minor in Italy.
Ulmus pumila is often found in abundance along railroads and in abandoned lots and on disturbed ground. The gravel along railroad beds provides ideal conditions for its growth: well-drained, nutrient poor soil, and high light conditions; these beds provide corridors which facilitate its spread. Owing to its high sunlight requirements, it seldom invades mature forests, and is primarily a problem in cities and open areas, as well as along transportation corridors.
Valued for the high resistance of some clones to Dutch elm disease, over a dozen selections have been made to produce hardy ornamental cultivars, although several may no longer be in cultivation:
Roerich describes a specimen discovered on his travels through Mongolia:-
- We are in the deserts of Mongolia. It was hot and dusty yesterday. From faraway thunder was approaching. Some of our friends became tired from climbing the stony holy hills of Shiret Obo. While already returning to the camp, we noticed in the distance a huge elm tree – ‘karagatch’, - lonely, towering amidst the surrounding endless desert. The size of the tree, its somewhat familiar outlines attracted us into its shadow. Botanical considerations led us to believe that in the wide shade of the giant there might be some interesting herbs. Soon, all the co-workers gathered around the two mighty stems of the karagatch. The deep, deep shadow of the tree covered about 50 feet across. The powerful tree-stems were covered with fantastic burr growths. In the rich foliage, birds were singing and the beautiful branches were stretched out in all directions, as if wishing to give shelter to all pilgrims.
- North America
- Arnold Arboretum. Acc. nos. 17923, 638-79, 673-87.
- Denver Botanic Gardens. Acc. no. 900534.
- Dominium Arboretum, Ottawa, Canada. No acc. details available.
- Holden Arboretum. Acc. nos. 99-868, 72-218
- Longwood Gardens. Acc. no. 1962-0512.
- Morton Arboretum. Acc. nos. 542-49, 325-70, 53-74, 172-U.
- UBC Botanical Garden and Centre for Plant Research. Acc. no. 027560-0284-1989.
- Arboretum of Warsaw University of Life Sciences , University of Life Sciences, Warsaw, Poland. 2 trees, no accession details available.
- Brighton & Hove City Council, UK, NCCPG Elm Collection .
- Dubrava Arboretum, Lithuania. No details available.
- Grange Farm Arboretum, Sutton St. James, Spalding, Lincolnshire, UK. Acc. no. 521.
- Hergest Croft Gardens, Kington, Herefordshire, UK. One tree, no accession details available.
- Hortus Botanicus Nationalis, Salaspils, Latvia. Acc. nos. 18162,3,4.
- Mote Park, Maidstone, UK. UK champion 22 m high, 66 cm d.b.h. in 1995.
- Royal Botanic Gardens, Wakehurst Place, UK. Acc. no. 2000-4449.
- Tallinn Botanic Garden, Estonia . No accession details available.
- Thorp Perrow Arboretum, Yorkshire, UK. British Champion tree, 19 m high, 70 cm d.b.h. in 2004 .
- Westonbirt Arboretum , Tetbury, Glos., UK. Two trees planted 1981, no acc.details.
- Alma Park, St Kilda, Victoria, Australia. One specimen, listed on the National Trust of Victoria's Significant Tree Register.
- Eastwoodhill Arboretum , Gisborne, New Zealand. 2 trees, details not known.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Ulmus pumila.|
- Fu, L., Xin, Y. & Whittemore, A. (2002). Ulmaceae, in Wu, Z. & Raven, P. (eds) Flora of China, Vol. 5 (Ulmaceae through Basellaceae). Science Press, Beijing, and Missouri Botanical Garden Press, St. Louis, USA. 
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- Klingaman, G. (1999). Plant of the Week: Siberian Elm. Extension News, University of Arkansas, Division of Agriculture.
- Geng, M. A. (1989). A provenance test with elm (Ulmus pumila L.) in China 32 (2). Silvae Genetica. pp. 37–44.
- Dirr, M. (1975). Manual of Woody Landscape Plants. Champaign, Illinois: Stipes Publishing LLC.
- Todzia, C. A. & Panero, J. L. (1998). A new species of Ulmus (Ulmaceae) from southern Mexico and a synopsis of the species in Mexico 50 (3). Brittonia. p. 346.
- McIlvain, E. H. & Armstrong, C. G. (1965). Siberian Elm: A Tough New Invader of Grasslands. Weeds, Vol. 13, No. 3 (July 1965), pp 278 - 279. Weed Science Society of America & Allen Press.
- J. E. Zalapa, J. Brunet, R. P. Guries (June 28, 2008). Isolation and characterization of microsatellite markers for red elm (Ulmus rubra Muhl.) and cross-species amplification with Siberian elm (Ulmus pumila L.) 8 (1). Wiley Online Library. pp. 109–12. doi:10.1111/j.1471-8286.2007.01805.x . PMID 21585729.
- Villamil, C. B., Zalba, S. M. Red de información sobre especies exóticas invasoras - I3N-Argentina Universidad Nacional del Sur Bahía Blanca, Argentina.
- National Audubon Society (2002). Field Guide to North American Trees, Western Region, p. 419-420
- de Roerich, G. (1931). Trails to Inmost Asia. Yale University Press.
- Johnson, Owen (ed.) (2003). Champion Trees of Britain & Ireland. Whittet Press, ISBN 978-1-873580-61-5.
Planted for quick-growing windbreaks, Ulmus pumila has weak wood, and its branches break easily in mature trees. It is easily distinguished from other North American elms by its singly serrate leaf margins. Ulmus pumila is similar to U . parvifolia Jacquin with its small, singly serrate leaves. Ulmus parvifolia , however, has smooth bark that sheds from tan to orange, and it flowers and sets fruit in the fall.