A Corky Surprise: Winged Elm

Winged Elm Fruits

For many years, I considered Winged Elm (Ulmus alata) to be merely a nuisance. Its numerous seeds disperse widely on the winds, and the species is known as a colonizer of old fields — in my case, empty vegetable beds. Like young Sweet Gum saplings, the branches usually sport a corky growth on two sides of their branches, resembling wings.

But not long after we bought our five acres over two decades ago, we were wandering the top of the hill when, nestled among the pines, I spotted the first mature specimen of this tree I’d ever seen. It was lovely. Its symmetrically spreading branches circle the tree, ascending the trunk to a height now of at least 50 feet. Here’s the base of the trunk, so you can see how big it is:

Winged Elm Trunk

That’s a mature Loblolly Pine behind it on the left side of the photo. That pine is easily 80 feet tall. The Winged Elm seems to have adapted to the shade of the mature pines surrounding it. They coexist without obvious problems.

I thought my specimen might be a potential record-holder, but I was wrong by a long shot. The national champion resides in Richmond County, NC and is 97 feet tall and 78 feet wide, rendering my tree positively petite by comparison.

It is most obvious in winter, because the famed branch “wings” really stand out after the forest trees shed their leaves. Here’s a close-up of one of its lower branches:

Winged Elm Branch

I think the wings give the branches visual punch in the landscape. As you can see from the first picture, this tree is currently sporting many fuzzy fruits — called samaras. The seeds within will be dispersed on the winds just as soon as they finish ripening, which should be any second now. I’ll know, because my vegetable beds are not far from this tree, and every May and June, I end up pulling up dozens of Winged Elm seedlings, no doubt courtesy of this nearby mother tree.

If you’re looking for a shade tree with character for a drier, upland Piedmont setting, consider Winged Elm. They’ve been used successfully as street and shade trees throughout the South. Voracious deer will browse low twigs and seedlings, but in my deer-dominated landscape, I still see plenty of young trees thriving.

The leaves are small and shiny green in summer. Fall color is occasionally a nice yellow —  more often, unexciting. But put snow on those corky branches, and you’ve got yourself a winter masterpiece.

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