Shape Is Key To Identifying American Elm

I like big trees, and I like American Elms. When we stopped by Jaycee Park in St. Charles, MO, I found both all rolled into one. We went to that particular park so Mira, my daughter, could check out the newly renovated playground (which is very nice by the way). Mira played while Chris and I held down a bench and talked, but I couldn’t stop looking at the tree on the top of the hill. I kept wondering if it was time to go yet, so I could get a closer look and take a few photos.

When it was time to go, the girls humored me and let me take pictures of the American Elm tree. I asked them to stand in the photos for scale and they actually did it. Most shocking was Mira, who seemed to not totally hate the experience. She was even a touch cocky, putting her leg up on a straw bale, while Chris was only the slightest bit annoyed (she gets forced to look at a lot of trees).

As I said, this tree is large, which is a noteworthy feat for a tree that usually succumbs to Dutch Elm disease at a much younger age. It shows no sign of the disease (knock on my head) and seems to be in great health. You can tell from the close-up photo of the base that it gets a lot of visitors who admire it as much as I do.

Besides having a large base, the crown is enormous. Click on one of the photos to get close-up and try counting the branches. There must be at least a billion of them up there (give or take a few). They spread out like a fan in all directions and leave very little open air. I am sure that in the summer it just looks like a big bush.

The way the branches spread from the main trunk is the best way to identify American Elms, especially without the leaves. The tree usually has a vase or fan shape to it, where a short to medium length and wide base separates from one area into many branches with no clear lead. The profile of the tree sometimes shows the lower branches with an upward turn at the ends, which makes the vase shape even more evident. This American Elm is so old that it has added some extra lower branches which are not strongly turned up. Still, even from a great distance, you can tell it is an American Elm.

I know a lot of you are wondering how old this tree is, and I can tell you that I don’t know (I am not afraid to admit it). My best guess would be about 150 years old based on the other trees I have milled. Let’s just say it is between 100 and 200 to be safe and definitely much older than me.

This American Elm has a classic vase shape.

This American Elm has a classic vase shape.

From this angle the vase shape is not as evident, but with park-goers directly beneath it, you can see just how big this tree is.

From this angle the vase shape is not as evident, but with park-goers directly beneath it, you can see just how big this tree is.

The base of this tree is big too. The root flares make nice little places to play and hide.

The base of this tree is big too. The root flares make nice little places to play and hide.

After I took the photos above, I thought it would be a good idea to post photos of other American Elms to show the consistency of the shape from tree to tree. Some of them have a long main trunk before the branches split off and some have almost no main trunk. One even has two trunks, but still shows the vase shape overall. Notice that none of them are near the size of the American Elm at Jaycee Park.

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About wunderwoods

Hi! My name is Scott Wunder and I am the owner of WunderWoods Custom Woodworking. We build wine cellars, built-ins and furniture from local woods, here in St. Louis, MO. Recently, I finished a three-year term as the President of the St. Louis Woodworkers Guild, which had me writing a monthly article for our newsletter. I love to write, especially about wood, and found that I still had more to say. Every day I run into something wood related that I realize some of my customers don't know and this seems like a great forum for sharing what I have learned (instead of telling the same story to each person). The main thing to remember is that I try to keep it light and as my wife always reminds people that have just met me, "He is joking."

4 responses to “Shape Is Key To Identifying American Elm”

  1. Dave Vitale says :

    I lost a cluster of these trees a few years ago to disease and finally had Roger mill them. They grew together so there was a lot if interesting grain patterns. I’m looking forward to using it for a future project.

  2. Doug Houser says :

    This is a very interesting article. i appreciate all the information you included. the photos are terrific. Thanks.

  3. Nick says :

    The state champion American Elm is at Bellefontaine Cemetery in (near?) St. Louis and has a circumference of 191 inches and is 102′ tall with 122′ spread.
    This looks pretty close!

  4. baslerfamily says :

    I am under it right now. Remarkable. I am on vacation and don’t have my forestry tape to measure the DBH.

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