Quick facts

Common names: field elm, smooth-leaved elm

Scientific name: Ulmus minor

Family: Ulmaceae

Origin: non-native

Mature trees grow to 30m. The bark is grey-brown, often with crossing ridges. The twigs are brown and occasionally have corky 'wings' or ridges. Field elm is an ancient introduction to the UK and a number of distinct forms are known, English elm being one of them.

Look out for: the distinctly asymmetric leaf bases which all elms have. Leaves are smooth on their top surface.

Identified in winter by: its grey-brown bark with crossing ridges.

What does field elm look like?

Field elm leaf on a white background

Credit: Nature Photographers Ltd / WTML

Leaves

Glossy, flat and smooth but leathery to the touch, and double toothed, 6–15cm in length. They have a characteristic asymmetrical base and taper to a sudden point at the top.

Field elm flower

Credit: Zoonar GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

Flowers

Elms are hermaphrodites, meaning that both male and female reproductive parts are contained within the same flower. Flowers, which appear in February and March, are dark pink to red and hang in tassels.

Field elm seeds in spring

Credit: Emil Enchev / Alamy Stock Photo

Fruits

Once pollinated by wind, the flowers develop into tiny winged fruits, known as samaras. These are dispersed by wind.

Not to be confused with:

Other elms or hazel (Corylus avellana).

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Where to find field elm

The field elm is native to much of Europe, but not to the UK. Its resistance to Dutch elm disease means that many specimens still exist in England, most notably in East Anglia and southern England.

Value to wildlife

Many birds eat elm seeds and the leaves provide food for the caterpillars of many moths, including the peppered, light emerald and white-spotted pinion moths. Caterpillars of the white-letter hairstreak butterfly feed on elms and the species has declined dramatically since Dutch elm disease arrived in the UK.

Mythology and symbolism

Elms used to be associated with melancholy and death, perhaps because the trees can drop dead branches without warning. Elm wood was also the preferred choice for coffins.

Uses of field elm

Elm wood is strong and durable with a tight-twisted grain, and is resistant to water. It has been used in wood turning, and to make boats and boat parts, furniture, wheel hubs, wooden water pipes, floorboards and coffins.

Did you know?

Before metal was widely available, many English towns had elm water mains, including Bristol, Reading, Exeter, Southampton, Hull and Liverpool.

Threats and conservation

Field elm is highly susceptible to Dutch elm disease, a fungal disease which devastated populations of elms when it arrived in the UK in the 1960s. However, because it is better at reproducing from seed than other elm species, some of its saplings are showing resistance to the disease.

Elms can also be affected by galls from aphids, which migrate from fruit-cultivated trees.