Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra)

Height: 30 to 60 feet; rarely approaches 90 feet

Evergreen/Deciduous: Deciduous  

Lifespan: Fairly long-lived for a fast-growing species; up to 200 years  

Fall Foliage: Yellow to brown; not particularly attractive

Range: Most of the eastern United States, except for large portions of the southern coastal plain  

Typical Habitat: Very adaptable, but requires ample soil moisture and prefers significant sun exposure  

The Slippery Elm: The American Elm’s Lesser-Known Cousin   

The American elm (Ulmus americana) is an iconic species that’s revered by biologists, tree-lovers and anyone who’s ever driven down a small-town street bordered by the tree’s canopy-creating branches.  It’s obviously experienced problems, thanks to Dutch elm disease, and isn’t as common as it used to be, but the tree rightly holds a special place in the American zeitgeist.

And that’s unfortunate for the slippery elm, as it is also an important tree of riparian areas throughout much of the same range. However, because the slippery elm is slightly smaller and has a less-appealing growth habit, it’s never become as popular with horticulturists. But the tree forms an important part of many forest habitats and is just as deserving of attention from nature lovers.

Slippery Elm Identification: Tips & Tricks

The slippery elm is easy to identify as an elm (as are most members of the genus Ulmus) — the uneven leaf bases and toothed margin is typically all that’s needed. But it can be pretty tricky to distinguish the slippery elm from the American elm.

Bark, growth habit, and habitat preference rarely offer clues, given the broad overlap of the two species. However, slippery elm leaves typically come to a sharper point than American elm leaves, and they’re also more likely to be rough on both sides. Slippery elm twigs are also hairy and bear bright red buds, which provide further identification clues.  

The Slippery Elm: Additional Information

Want to learn more about the slippery elm? Check out these great resources:

  • North Carolina State Extension: A relatively comprehensive guide to the species, including an info-rich table that allows for quick reference and numerous photographs.
  • Carolina Nature: A fantastic collection of slippery elm photographs and identification tips, including a side-by-side look at American and slippery elm leaves.
  • U.S. Forest Service: A detailed guide to the species, including a helpful range map.   

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