Chinese Elm gets bad rap

My pet, Puggy, retrieving a sweat sock from a Siberian Elm tree.

My pet, Puggy, retrieving a sweat sock from a Siberian Elm tree.

I enjoy recalling special events as a youngster in Raton.

Our front yard had a large tree with perfectly forked branches which made it ideal for climbing. I did that when I thought my Mom wasn’t watching. When I got caught I would hear, “Get down from that tree, Tony.” With an obedient face, but a smile in my heart, I would climb down.

I also recall fun times with Puggy, my pet Boston terrier, as he retrieved my Dad’s sweat sock, which I had hidden in the fork of that tree. Of course, when Puggy jumped down I had to chase him all around the yard to remove the sock from his mouth.

I enjoyed that tree, but I did not know what kind it was until years later when my parents told me it was a Chinese Elm.

When I moved to the Portales-Clovis area, I saw numerous Chinese Elms in city parks, golf courses, cemeteries, and in front of residential homes. Those trees brought back many memories — Raton, Puggy, shade, fun.

But, I heard unfavorable comments from local residents about Chinese Elms, such as their branches are brittle and break easily, they have a high seed production in the spring resulting in saplings everywhere, and the trees are usually full of elm beetles.

I thought, “Wow.”

Well anyway I, along with other people and the birds, continued to enjoy the shade of the elm trees in parks and golf courses.

One morning, however, while bird watching with a colleague at Hillcrest Park in Clovis, I commented on the numerous Chinese Elm trees. His response was, “Tony, those are Siberian Elms, not Chinese Elms.” “You’re kidding,” I said. His comment brought to mind that many individuals in this area will be surprised to learn that the tree they have been calling Chinese Elm is really a Siberian Elm.

I did some research and discovered that the first Siberian Elm tree was introduced into the US in 1905. Because of the tree’s fast growth, tolerance at almost any site, and zealous promotion from owners of tree nurseries, the Siberian Elm reached immediate popularity. The federal government realized the value of Siberian Elms and seemingly planted them everywhere, such as in parks, cemeteries, roadways, near government buildings, and shelterbelts. In fact, George Thomas Rea, grandfather of Penny Summers of Clovis, helped plant Siberian Elm trees at Hillcrest Park when he worked years ago with the WPA.

At the present time, Siberian Elms occupy all of the United States, Mexico, and most of Canada.

The Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila) and Chinese Elm (Ulmus parvifolia) are two distinct species. The Chinese Elm was introduced into the U.S. around 1850. It produces fruit in the fall, not spring like the Siberian Elm. The bark of the Chinese Elm is smooth and vaguely ridged, unlike the heavy, irregular, unattractive ridges seen on Siberian Elms, and Chinese Elms display beautiful autumnal colors.

With the exception of New Mexico, the Chinese Elm is a popular tree used for landscaping in the Southwest, eastern U.S., and southwestern Canada. I called four nurseries in Arizona, and they stated they sold all sizes of the popular Chinese Elm tree. I called several nurseries in Albuquerque, and individuals there stated they did not sell Chinese Elms. I called local nurseries in Clovis and Portales.

Comments from individuals there were, “We don’t have Chinese Elms available because they don’t sell.

Misinformed customers confuse the unpopular Siberian Elm tree with the beautiful Chinese Elm tree.

Now I wonder, “How many years will it take to clarify that major error in tree identification?” All I can say is this misidentification has resulted in the loss of a gorgeous landscape tree.

Desert Biologist Tony Gennaro of Portales writes a monthly column on creatures and flora of the Southwest. Contact him at: tonygennaro_08@msn.com

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