Issue: April 14, 2007

Chinese elms are good trees


My neighbor was given some trees at a special program in Albuquerque a few weeks ago. One of the trees was a Chinese elm. Why would anyone give away a Chinese elm? I thought they are a nuisance tree and banned in Albuquerque.


The problem is that in New Mexico we incorrectly call Siberian elms by the name Chinese elm. The Siberian elms (Ulmus pumila) are the trees that are so common in New Mexico. They have some good characteristics and some bad characteristics. One of their good characteristics is that they will grow and do quite well under very difficult conditions and provide shade where other trees do not grow well. Bad characteristics include that they will grow just about anywhere (including places we don't want them), they have branches that break easily, they are damaged by elm leaf beetles, they produce allergy producing pollens in the spring, and their seeds dispersed by wind come up in all the wrong places (hence the nuisance characteristic).

George Duda, New Mexico Urban Forester with the Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Division, discussed this situation with me recently. He and Jeff Hart, with the Albuquerque Parks Department, were at the tree give-away and discussed the Chinese elm with many people. So, you aren't the only person who has been confused by our misuse of the names of the elm trees.

As George and Jeff spoke to people, they pointed out that the true Chinese elm trees (Ulmus parvifolia) have more desirable characteristics than the Siberian elm. An especially beneficial characteristic is that the Chinese elm trees are much less likely to produce seeds that result in unwanted tree seedlings. This may be because the Chinese elms flower in the late summer and autumn and the seeds don't have time to mature before freezing in much of New Mexico and perhaps the dry weather in late summer prevents seeds developing to maturity.

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Marisa Y. Thompson, PhD, is the Extension Horticulture Specialist, in the Department of Extension Plant Sciences at the New Mexico State University Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center, email:, office: 505-865-7340, ext. 113.


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