November 11, 2011

Zelkovas in Skirts

Zelkova serrata from UConn database
Very few people have heard of a tree called a zelkova.

It is a shade tree that has been widely planted to replace the elms lost long ago in our cities.  You have them all over newer neighborhoods and planted up and down urban streets.  But almost no one knows the name.

It doesn't have a common name, for some reason.  Zelkova is the genus name and it sure doesn't roll off the tongue.

Zelkova serrata is vase shaped, like American elms.  But to my eye they lack the grace and proportion of elms.  They don't even come close to being a replacement for what we lost when all the elms succumbed to Dutch elm disease.

But they are a nice enough lawn tree, very tough, not bothered by much.  Fall color can be eye catching (see the New York City trees in Marie's post at 66 Square Feet).  Older trees have patchy, peeling orange bark that is really interesting.  I have not planted one, but there are several at the end of our street.

In the October snow storm here they suffered damage, but being tough survivors, they will be okay.  What was so funny was the pattern of damage, which was identical in each tree: every zelkova dropped two branches down around its knees, creating a little skirt.  Just two limbs, no more.

A pair of branches snapped from the center of each tree and then carefully draped themselves around the naked trunk.

One young zelkova cracked up and completely split apart, but all the others (5 of them in total), did this identical thing and as a group they look like they were seized with a fit of modesty and had to cover up.  Trees do funny things.

They are wonderfully resilient growers and will look just fine next season.  Someone will have to remove the two branches dangling around each tree's trunk, but in the end, I think they look better pruned this way a little bit.

I just hope these modest trees aren't too embarrassed to have their skirts removed.


  1. Love your analogy of the fallen branches to skirts. Chuckle! :o) I'm glad they made it through. I'd never heard of zelkovas either until I finally figured out what the tree in my front yard was.

  2. Laurrie, your observations are so clever! Fascinating the way they all lost the two branches. Nature always has a plan.

  3. Thanks for the link, Laurrie. Until I'd seen their fall colour, which lasts for all of a week (or so), I really had no time for Zelkovas. I just...don't like them. Except for right now!

  4. I did not realize the zelkova is that weak a tree. They are specified around here quite a bit, but my grower friend does not grow them. I have to ask him if this is the reason why.

  5. Maybe they all got together and decided that their knees looked terrible with a gown of snow. They had to do something so they threw down a couple of limbs to hide those ugly knees. I have never heard of such a tree.

  6. Tammy, you must have had quite a time figuring our your tree was a zelkova --- nobody know what these trees are!

    Cat, nature always has a plan, but she sure mystifies us someitmes.

    Marie, I don't like zelkovas either, they are sort of weedy looking to me. But the fall colors are good, and the bark is neat.

    Donna, I'd be interested to know what plant growers think of this tree. It was supposed to be the answer to elms.

    Lisa, it does seem like all 5 zelkovas got together and decided how to handle this storm : )

  7. I've read about these trees in garden books but have never before seen one. They look nice but I agree, not nearly so graceful as the original elm. Very sweet idea about their modesty remaining intact. I never would have thought of it as a skirt.

  8. So interesting to see how they broke like that. Alberta is one of the remaining areas free of Dutch Elm. Because I love elms so much, I did plant one in the back garden last year and hope that it stays safe. Fingers crossed!

  9. I am with Marie. Zelkova is a tree the University of Illinois recommends but I just don't see them as that fabulous!
    When I hear of the tree skirt, it throw me back to the South, where they would limb up the Magnolia grandiflora, and they called it lifting her skirts!
    I wonder how the snow storm effected your bird population, if at all?

  10. Hi Laurrie,I wonder if the zelkova looks any better once it has some real age on it - even some of the best trees don't have much character as youngsters.

  11. Marguerite, they are not graceful trees at all, but they do serve as tough urban trees that can shade a street.

    Garden Ms. S, I didn't know there were any areas that had escaped Dutch elm disease. It must be wonderful to see old elms in your part of the world.

    Sissy, I had heard of "lifting the skirts" when trimming up a tree, but hadn't even thought about that expression here! Birds around here seem to be fine after the storm. The crows even let us know what they thought about it.

  12. Cyndy, you make a good point about maturing trees gaining their grace, but there were mature old zelkovas in town in front of the hardware store and they were ungainly. The bark on old trees gets really interesting, but the trees are a bulky weedy shape even when they get old. In my opinion.

  13. I'd never heard of zelkovas before, but when I see one now, I'll always think of their skirts:)

  14. I DO love your skirt metaphor! I had never heard of Zelkova before, but it turns out that it is a member of the Elm family, so it makes sense as a substitute for elms.

    In my town of Redding, CT, we have planted two elms. One is a Chinese Lacebark Elm. This is a compact tree with decorative bark and natural resistance to Dutch Elm Disease. The other is an American Liberty Elm, the only Ulmus americana to be warranted as Dutch Elm Disease resistant. This can grow much larger. So far, both are healthy, though the Chinese Elm lost a central branch in the Nor'easter.


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