If I were to ask you which common western Colorado tree is cursed more than any other, what would you say? Russian olive? Salt cedar? Globe willow? What about cottonwoods? No, the correct answer would be the Siberian elm tree (incorrectly called Chinese elm sometimes).
Someone once opined that the Siberian elm is one of the world's worst ornamental trees ... that does not deserve to be planted anywhere! Yet, some covet this tree for its rapid growth, adaptability to poor growing conditions and the shade it provides in areas that otherwise have few shade trees.
Right now our local Siberian elms are "greening up," not so much with new leaves yet but with "bazillions" of small, light green samara seeds. These seeds will soon exit their purchase on their tree and be blown all over the Surface Creek Valley and beyond. And they have a very high germination rate. But I'm not telling fellow gardeners anything new. We will spend time on our hands and knees pulling these little elm seedlings from our flower beds. If you wait too long then a more aggressive approach will be needed to extract these well rooted trees.
Why do we even have this elm tree that was introduced to the USA in 1905 from northern and eastern China? They were cultivated to be wind breaks following the "dust bowl days" where they would establish even under droughty conditions.
Are there any desirable elms to be planted in our area? While the American elm was all but eliminated by Dutch Elm Disease (DED), there are many survivors spread across the country. This species used to be the number one street tree in America until DED. We replaced it with ash trees which may themselves be "done in" by the emerald ash borer.
Princeton is an American elm selection that is resistant to DED as are other selections that are being developed. There are DED resistant hybrid elms available as well including Accolade and Prospector.
The lacebark elm, sometimes incorrectly called the Chinese elm, tolerates our heavy soils and has an attractive exfoliating bark. Its fall color is nothing to write home about but it is DED resistant and has small leaves compared to some of the other elms.
An elm tree I especially like is the hybrid Frontier elm. Its leaves turn red-purple to burgundy in the fall. And best of all, it produces only a few seeds compared to the Siberian elm. It too is resistant to DED as well as a host of insect pests.
Some of these trees can be viewed either at the Lincoln Park Arboretum in Grand Junction or our very own Pioneer Town Arboretum in Cedaredge. So there you have it, Siberian elms not so great but other elms may be just what you are looking for.
Jim Leser retired to Cedaredge in 2007 after a career with Texas A&M University Extension in entomology. He is a member of the Cedaredge Tree Board and a Colorado Master Gardener.
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