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The Slippery Elm

This tree is the cousin to the very familiar American or White Elm. Though this beautiful tree has good wildlife benefits, it is rarely used for landscaping. Why? The answer lies in the fact that no one grows it and landscapers have difficulty obtaining them commercially. Since they are a relatively easy tree to propagate I could not understand why it wasn’t being grown. Turns out we need a history lesson to understand.

Slippery Elm
Slippery or Red Elm

Actually, the Latin botanical name gives a hint to the answer. Ulmus rubra. Ulmus refers to the Elm family and rubra refers to the red inner bark that is very slippery. The Native Americans used the Slippery Elm inner bark to induce labour, as a wound dressing, to treat dysentery, coughs, and stomach ailments. Early colonists were quick to learn the healing powers of the tree and they began to heavily harvest Slippery Elm. As a matter of fact, by 1875, it was all but gone from many areas of North America, such as Massachusetts. Then of course, the dreaded Dutch Elm Disease (DED) arrived and decimated all elms.

Yes, DED is here to stay but that does not mean we need to shy away from planting Elm. We just need to plant smartly. Just to give you perspective, the most resistant elm is the American Elm, followed by the Rock Elm and then the Slippery Elm. There are 100+ yr old Slippery Elms that we gather seeds from that are still very healthy. Our fear of DED is denying Ontario wildlife a valuable component.

The seeds of Elm are consumed by birds, wood ducks, and small mammals. The twigs are browsed on by deer and rabbits. Caterpillars of Mourning Cloak, Eastern Comma, Question Marks, and various moths consume the leaves. Larger trees are breeding sites for Northern Orioles, Warbling Vireos and Red Shouldered Hawks. And lastly, the sap is sought out by the Yellow Bellied Sapsucker. What a truly versatile tree!

Slippery Elm Seeds
Seeds of slippery elm

If you are considering planting a Slippery Elm you will find it looks very similar to its cousin the American Elm. It is more upright and less droopy but will still attain heights of 40 – 60 feet and widths of 30 – 50 feet. A very tough tree that is tolerant to black walnut toxicity and moderate salt spray. It is a perfect candidate for poorly drained areas over a wide range of soil types. So maybe you can reconsider and plant a Slippery Elm.

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