Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Other Elms
Nature Bulletin No. 280-A   October 28, 1967
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F, Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

The oldest record of any elm is dated approximately 50 million years ago. At one time they even grew in tropical jungles but, today, they are found only in the northern hemisphere. There are 6 species native in the United States but none west of the Rockies, and 12 others in Europe, Asia and North Africa.

Of our native elms, the Slippery Elm, also called Red Elm, is next to the American elm in abundance and natural range. It is found along streams banks or low fertile slopes, although it sometimes grows on rocky ridges. It lacks the graceful symmetry of the American elm and is a smaller tree -- usually from 40 to 60 feet high with a rather short trunk from one to two feet in diameter and stout spreading limbs. It has leaves that are extremely rough on the upper surface, and the bark on old trunks is dark reddish brown, rather than ashy gray. It gets its name from the inner bark, which is so mucilaginous and aromatic that children love to chew it -- as the Indians and pioneers often did to quench their thirst -- and it is good for a sore throat. The Indians made boxes and baskets of the bark, crude canoes, and covered their wigwams with it. The wood is strong, heavy and, being fairly durable in the soil, is used for fence posts and railroad ties. It is also used for furniture, wheel hubs, sills for buildings, shipbuilding and farm implements.

The Rock Elm, or Cork Elm, is usually a rather tall tree with a long straight trunk and noticeably short stout branches. The twigs develop thick corky ridges which may disappear on old trees. It is a northern tree but nowhere abundant. Its wood is heavier, denser and stronger than that of the other elms and, because of its resistance to shock, it is fine for hockey sticks and javelins.

The Winged Elm is a medium-sized tree found mostly on gravelly uplands in southern United States. It has small leaves and its twigs generally have two thin corky wings opposite each other. The September Elm is another medium-sized tree, never plentiful, found in the Mississippi valley and as far east as Georgia. It has short pendulous branches and its twigs often have corky wings. Unlike most trees, it flowers in autumn. The Cedar or Basket Elm is a larger tree, found only in the lower Mississippi valley, Texas and northeastern Mexico. Its leaves are smaller than those of the other native elms. It also has drooping branches, corky wings on its twigs, and blooms in August or September.

Three European elms -- the English, the Scotch or Wych, and the Smooth-leaved -- and many cultivated varieties of them, have been introduced into this country. Elm lumber has never been as important commercially as that of the oaks and other hardwoods. Unless carefully handled while being seasoned, it tends to twist and warp. However, it holds nails well and country folks used to prefer it for farm gates and homemade coffins. In Europe, elmwood is noted for its durability under water. At one time it was much used for making water pipes and these are still being dug up from the streets in London. The Waterloo Bridge, in London, was supported by elm piles for 120 years and the Rialto Bridge, across the Grand Canal in Venice, is said to stand on more than 1000 piles of this wood.

The English and Scotch elms because their wood is very flexible when steamed, were much used for boat building, as well as for coffins, vehicles, wheels and furniture. Grandpaw used to say: "The only thing tougher'n a mule is an ellum club. "

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