Thursday, March 15, 2012

Slippery Elm

Some of the earliest of the spring flowers belong to native trees and shrubs that produce their blooms prior to unfurling any leaves.  Many of these go unnoticed because of their inaccessible locations high overhead or because of the modest displays they produce.  One bright member of the early flowering tree crowd is the Slippery Elm, Ulmus rubra.

They may not reach out and grab a casual passer-by, but the Slippery Elm blossoms are certainly noticeable to those paying attention to their surroundings.  This particular elm is common at Blue Jay Barrens, but it always seems that blooming individuals are in the minority.

When I first catch sight of the swelling flower buds, I always think galls.  Then as I get closer, I recognize the tree and the growth on the branch.  The hairy bud scales are almost more attractive than the flower.

Most of the flower’s color comes from the dark red anthers and pink stigmas.  As the filaments elongate, their pale color turns the flower cluster into a pink puffball.  This is a short lived flower, so the window of opportunity for optimum viewing is just a couple of days.  The flower is quickly pollinated and seeds will be ripe at about the same time the leaves begin to develop.

The flowers are situated lower down on the stem than the leaf buds that will develop the new branches.  This arrangement is part of the reason I keep thinking the flower buds are galls.

The bark is described as having shallow fissures.  I pay attention to bark patterns, but I think the descriptions are for mature specimens.  I find that a lot of young bark fails to match its elder’s physical features.

Most of the elms contain a fair number of dead limbs.  Fortunately, the trees persist and manage to add live wood faster than it’s lost.

It’s not until the tree reaches above its neighbors that the vase shape of the top growth becomes noticeable.  It looks like there are plenty of flowers in the upper branches, so this ought to be a good year for seeds.


  1. Hi Steve...A tree that you most likely will not see to many of around here is an Elm...the Duth Elm disease whiped them old years ago ..
    I have never heard of the slippery Elm, but the flowers are so lovely ...I like your reference to a vase...full of flowers!! Clever!!

  2. Hi Grace. As a kid, I used to live on one of those city streets that was lined with American Elms. They were already diseased and dying at that time. It seems the city crew was always out removing trees that could not longer stand on their own. I used to capture jars full of the beetles that carried the disease. Now, I wouldn't know where to search for an American Elm.