wildflower watch

Winged Elm

Botanical Name:

Ulmus alata

While waiting for spring to arrive in all its glory, those with a penchant for natural floral designs would be wise to take the approach of a minimalist. When there is a dearth of flowers, twigs and sticks, especially those with unusual shapes, add an interesting abstract flair to that tired, old centerpiece, and when out scouring the countryside for a unique, bare branch, those knowledgeable about native trees will take their clippers and head straight for the winged elm tree.

The winged elm is a medium-sized deciduous tree, growing to approximately 40 or 50 feet in height, and it grows in a variety of habitats. Its leaves, smaller than the leaves of other species of elms, are typically elm-shaped, dark green and doubled-toothed, but even before this tree leafs out, it is readily identified by its "wings," the corky growth found on its lower branches. Its bark is reddish-brown, and the fruit contains a single seed which has a distinctive two-pronged apex. The winged elm, unlike the American elm, is not very susceptible to Dutch elm disease and is a much hardier tree.

Like most elms, the wood of this native tree is hard and strong and difficult to split. In the past, the wood was used for making hubs and mauls. The inner bark was formerly a source for making rope was used to bind cotton bales.

This tree with the winged branches is an important plant for wildlife. The seeds are eaten by cardinals, finches, chickadees, sparrows and grosbeaks, and many small mammals, including rabbits and fox squirrels, also find the seeds tasty. The winged elm is the host or larval plant for the following butterflies: the eastern comma, the mourning cloak and the question mark.

A branch of winged elm can add new dimensions to your latest attempts at floral design and to your natural landscape. If you are lucky, perhaps a winged elm will fly over and take root at your house!

-Wildflower Watch is written by Margaret Gratz for the Northeast Mississippi Native Plant Society.

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