A Gardening Journal

Golden Scots Elm

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Here it is: The most colorful tree for any northern garden.  With leaves that are solid yellow from May to frost, golden Scots elm is uniquely vivid all season long.

 

And despite an elm's usual risk for an arm's-length list of maladies, the golden Scots elms I know haven't gotten that e-mail:  They grow like topsy, five to ten feet a year, year after year after year. 

 

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I don't even have a single Japanese beetle chomp, either.  (Where did those hateful guys go?  Squishing them by the hundreds—bare-fingered, but of course!—used to be a grisly-gleeful Summer routine.)

 

Before you plant a golden Scots elm of your own, see 'How to Handle It' and 'Downsides' below for some serious caveats.  But then, start the experiment in your own garden:  Get one and plant it.  The trees are only available as very small saplings, anyway, so you won't have a lot of money on the line.  And if yours thrives like mine—growing ten feet a year—it will be a raised finger to the official naysayers. 

 

In these times of such widespread uncertainty, we need all possible moments of triumph.  Especially if they're chrome yellow.

 

 

Here's how to grow this hardy, colorful tree:

Latin Name

Ulmus glabra 'Aurea'

Common Name

Golden Scots Elm

Family

Ulmaceae, the Elm family.

What kind of plant is it?

Very hardy deciduous tree.

Hardiness

Zones 4-6.

Habit

Broadly upright.

Rate of Growth

Fast—very fast when young.

Size in ten years

Twenty feet tall or taller, fifteen feet wide.  Mature free-range individuals can be eighty feet tall and more, and fifty feet wide.

Texture

Depending on the training:  Free-range, it's an open-canopied shade tree.  Pollarded or coppiced it's a densely-foliage large shrub or small tree that's as good for privacy as it is for bright seasonal color.   

Grown for

its rarity: Dutch elm disease has removed many elms from the usual garden scene.  Throw in this tree's uncompromisingly bright foliage, which will make you scream either with delight or horror, and you've got a plant that's most definitely not already growing on your block.

its bright yellow foliage:  the leaves are much larger than those of American elm, but the same tooth-edged shape.  It's their brilliant color—solid chrome yellow—that is the stunner.  Not only is it intense enough to remind you of the protective value of sunglasses, it's absolutely unflagging regardless of heat and strong sun:  The tree is as vivid in September as it was in September. 

Flowering season

Spring, before the leaves appear.  Being wind-pollinated, the flowers don't have any petals that would get in the way.  Small as well as reddish-green, they are, at best, a subtle but welcome sign of returning life, both of Spring in general and this disease-susceptible plant in particular. 

Culture

Sun in regular but well-draining soil.

How to handle it

Ulmus glabra 'Aurea' is so bright a presence in the garden that it needs careful siting.  It can't be anything other than a major focus—and a full-size one at that—so plant it only where major drama is warranted. 

 

Tolerant of air pollution as well as radical pruning, this is a tree that can thrive in compact city gardens as long as they're very sunny.  But keep in mind that the tree is so fast growing—doubly so in response to pruning—that it will outgrow a cramped spot in only months.  Any attempts to control the size by pruning can, counter-intuitively, only make the situation worse: The resultant shoots on pollarded or coppiced specimens can grow ten feet by September.  Because the look of the plant is ruined if young shoots get tip-pruned like you would do when giving your privet a July and August pruning, you need to allow for that ten-foot growth right from the start. 

 

Fortunately, pollarded growth is largely upright, so while pollards will definitely get ten feet taller after pollarding, they don't usually get more than half that wider on each side.  In other words, a tree that's pollarded each Spring at, say, seven feet would be seventeen feet tall by September but only ten feet wide. 

 

The first ranks of the Spring foliage on the new branches can be severely disfigured by leaf galls; the tree grows new foliage for much of the season, though, so July and August growth is usually gall-free.  In my experience, pollarded individuals avoid galls entirely, probably because the pruning delays the start of Spring growth by the week or two that, happily, puts it beyond the date of gall infestations.  I recommend that this tree be grown only as a pollard.

Downsides

In addition to the leaf galls (which can be dodged by growing the tree as a pollard or coppice), Ulmus glabra 'Aurea' is also very susceptible to Dutch elm disease.  But your plant might avoid it simply because there are no longer any other susceptible elms nearby that would be the host to the elm beetle that transmits the Dutch elm fungus.  I've grown my 'Aurea' for years and it shows no sign of reduced vigor, let alone the galloping decline typical for Dutch elm.  It's possible that early-Spring pollarding helps the tree resist Dutch elm as well as galls, because it removes almost all the growth from the year before as it also delays the start of new growth for a couple of weeks.

 

Ulmus glabra can be susceptible to a wide range of other insects and diseases, too, so is (wisely) rarely planted today.  No longer grown and sold by the millions, its present scarcity in both nurseries and landscapes means that the remaining extant plants (or the occasional new one) escape, from sheer isolation, many problems that formerly would have been passed from tree to tree.  Plant 'Aurea' as an experiment, then, not as the main event of your entire garden.    

Variants

Ulmus glabra has dozens of cultivars, including the weeping 'Camperdown' and flat-topped 'Horizontalis' varieties.  Dutch elm disease is always the boogieman, so these are trees to plant sparingly. 

Availability

On-line at "destination" nurseries.

Propagation

By soft-wood cuttings in June, as well as by grafting. 

Native habitat

Ulmus glabra is native to the Britain Isles and Ireland.  

 
 
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