Chinese Elm Tree – Care Guide

Have questions about Chinese Elm Trees? We’ve got answers in our comprehensive Chinese Elm Tree guide.

With their weeping habit, colorful bark, and fall color, Chinese elm trees are graceful and beautiful additions to landscapes.

If you’re looking for an attractive tree that won’t be a fussy problem, then a Chinese elm is the tree for you.

Keep reading because we take all the mystery out of properly caring for this hardy tree. Once finished, you’ll know exactly what this tree requires to thrive.

Best of all, you don’t have to be a master gardener to turn your Chinese elm into an eye-catching specimen.

General Information

Chinese elm tree (Ulmus parvifolia) is native to China, North Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. It also goes by the common name lacebark elm.

The elm is hardy growing in USDA zones 5 through 10. Trees have a deciduous or evergreen habit depending on the climate where it resides. Those growing in the warmest portions of its hardiness zones are evergreen.

The tree has a fast growth rate. At maturity, Chinese elms grows to an average height of 40 to 50 feet with a similar spread. However, some of them can grow up to 70 feet with the right conditions.

The elm develops an upright, round and graceful thick canopy filled with long arching branches resulting in a vase-like shape. Branches fill with glossy, 1-inch dark green leaves that are quite attractive.

Those living in the coldest portion of its hardiness zones can expect some brilliant fall colors. In fall, leaves transform into bright shades of purple, yellow, and red. In warmer areas, the green leaves can take on a yellow hue. The dropped foliage typically doesn’t create a litter problem in the landscape.

In late summer, Chinese elm trees produce little greenish-red flowers. Spent flowers then develop into clusters of flat, single-seeded, winged-samara fruit that are papery-feeling. The fruit matures in fall.

Chinese Elm vs. Siberian Elm

Although often called a Chinese elm, a Siberian elm (Ulmus pumila) is a totally different tree.

The Siberian elm has gray, deeply furrowed bark compared to the Chinese elm. It also has a fast growth rate, but it is prone to branches breaking and many diseases and pests. Although they have similar traits at first glance, the Siberian elm is an inferior tree with a host of problems and is considered invasive in many areas.

General Care Guide

When planted in preferred conditions and given proper care, a Chinese elm tree can live anywhere from 50 to 150 years.

Getting your tree off to its best start prevents potential future problems.

Amount of Sun

One of the good things about Chinese elms is that they tolerate a wide range of sun conditions. They grow well in an area located in full sun to partial shade. However, they won’t perform well planted in a location situated in full shade.

Although the tree tolerates various light conditions, full sun produces the best growth.

Preferred Soil Conditions

These hardy trees also adapt to various soil types. They tolerate soil that is occasionally wet to dry. The tree also adapts to extreme changes in soil pH from acidic to alkaline.

For the best growth, plant a it in an area with well-drained, rich loamy soil kept moist through regular water applications.

Although the tree tolerates occasional wet feet, don’t plant in an area where the soil is constantly wet and soggy. Problems with root rot can occur if conditions are too wet.

Watering Frequency

Once established, Chinese elm trees have a high tolerance for drought conditions. It’s forgiving if you forget to water or rain hasn’t graced your area in a while.

However, regular water applications produce the best growth, keeping the foliage looking its best.

Give newly planted trees a deep drink of water several times weekly. Once the tree establishes itself in about two to three months, you can cut back to weekly applications.

You may have to water more frequently if your location has extremely hot and dry summers. If temperatures start rising over 100℉, water the your tree two to three times per week.

Spreading several inches of mulch over the planting site helps the soil retain moisture. 

Fertilization

Like all living things, Chinese elm trees require periodic nutrients for healthy growth.

Fertilize the tree every couple of months during the growing season of spring through summer. Use a general-purpose blend for trees. Follow the package directions on amounts.

When applying the fertilizer, spread it evenly under the tree’s canopy. Be sure not to bunch the fertilizer up against the trunk to prevent burning.

Once applied, water the fertilizer into the planting site’s soil.

Unique Qualities and Characteristics

Besides its hardiness, Chinese elms have some unique qualities that make it an eye-catching asset in the landscape.

They have a resistance to several pests and diseases that have decimated other native elms. The tree is usually resistant to Dutch elm disease, which is spread by bark beetles and has has killed many native elm trees.

The elm also has a resistance to phloem necrosis. It’s a deadly disease that’s spread by root grafts of leafhoppers. The disease girdles the tree and leads to death. There’s no cure once the tree is infected.

Chinese elms also show good resistance to Japanese beetles and the elm leaf beetles.

Another unique and attractive quality is the tree’s exfoliating bark. As the bark peels away, it shows molted patterns in colors or green, orange, brown, cream, and gray.

Due to their ability to thrive in a wide range of conditions, it also makes a good tree used in bonsai.

Landscape Design Ideas

Chinese elm trees have many positive attributes, which make them an excellent, but underutilized landscape tree.

Their biggest bonus besides their graceful beauty is their ability to thrive in many conditions.

When considering a location to plant the elm permanently, always consider its mature size. You don’t want to plant it where its mature height and width interfere with structures or powerlines.

Give it room to spread naturally.

Their fast growth and thick canopies filled with leaves give them a good shading capacity. This makes them a perfect shade tree to sit and relax under to beat the summer heat.

They also are quite attractive when used as a street tree or in a sidewalk cutout. In fact, they are also frequently planted in parking lots. However, be careful because their roots may lift a sidewalk if planted too close.

With their attractive dark green leaves and graceful branches, the elm is sure to gain attention when used as a focal design element. This is especially true in colder areas of its range, where it shows off its brilliant fall colors.

Companion Plants

Gardeners have many choices in plants that make good companions. Whether you’re looking for low-growing groundcovers or larger trees, there’s something to suit everyone’s fancy.

Plants that thrive in the same conditions and with the same basic care make good choices.

Companion Groundcovers

Plants that work well growing under the tree include:

  • Lily Turf (Liriope muscari)
  • Hosta (Hosta spp.)
  • Daffodils (Narcissus spp.)
  • Virginia Bluebell (Mertensia virginica)
  • Periwinkle (Vinca minor)

Companion Trees

If you’re looking for companion trees, the following work well:

  • Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)
  • Green Giant Arborvitae (Thuja standishii x plicata ‘Green Giant’)
  • Pink Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida var. ruba)
  • Chaste Tree (Vitex agnus-castus)
  • Golden Rain Tree (Koelreuteria paniculata)

Make sure to check out some of our guides for some of its companion plants:

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Happy Planting!

About the author: Carley Miller is a horticultural expert at TheGreenPinky. She previously owned a landscaping business for 25 years and worked at a local garden center for 10 years.

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