Smaller trees for specimens are always in high demand, yet the Drake Chinese Elm remains under-used. Perhaps people think of the large American Elm, and worry about disease, but the Drake Chinese Elm is highly resistant to Dutch Elm Disease, and normally never attacked. Perhaps too it is often confused with the unruly, short-lived, disease-ridden and weedy Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila), and so it has a completely undeserved bad reputation.
Be assured, the Drake Elm is very different, and it grows into a handsome tree with a rounded crown, no more than 45 feet tall. It has small leaves, good fall color in cooler areas, and it is evergreen in warm areas. It also has very attractive bark, mottled gray, and peeling to reveal tan and red bark beneath. This handsome bark has led to it also being called the Lacebark Elm.
Growing Drake Chinese Elm Trees
Grow the Drake Chinese Elm as a specimen tree in a lawn, as a screen, or behind large shrubs. If you have a large, open lawn area, grow a selection of different trees on it, including the Drake Chinese Elm, as an attractive, low-maintenance way of bringing interest and structure to your garden. Because it is so tough, the Drake Chinese Elm is ideal for those awkward corners, and narrow planting beds, which can be hard to fill in interesting ways. The new stems are slender, and easily trimmed, and the tree is fast-growing, adding at least 3 feet a year during the first decade.
This tree grows from zone 7 to zone 9. In zone 7 the leaves will fall late in the year, in November or December, coloring attractive shades of bronze and gold. In zone 9 this tree is more-or-less evergreen, staying green all winter, and just losing a few leaves. In this feature the Drake Chinese Elm is considerably more evergreen than common Chinese elm trees are. This makes it very useful for screening, since there is no time of year when it is bare and open.
Planting and Initial Care
The Drake Chinese Elm grows best in a sunny spot, although it will tolerate some light shade too. It grows well in almost all kinds of soil, including both very acidic and very alkaline ones and in difficult urban conditions too. It will also grow well in soil that is periodically wet, but not so well in soil that is constantly wet. Once established it is very drought resistant, although watering during long dry spells is beneficial. It is moderately tolerant of salt spray, so it is also a good choice in coastal areas. It is almost completely resistant to Dutch Elm Disease. Common pests of elm, like leaf beetles and Japanese beetles, usually do not bother it.
With its slender branches and small leaves, the Drake Chinese Elm is easily clipped into a rounded form for a more formal look, or into a hedge or screen. It tends naturally to develop several trunks, but it can be pruned to maintain a single trunk. For a more natural and graceful tree, remove smaller branches inside the crown as the tree grows, to maintain an open form, with well-spaced branches along the trunk. Pruning in this way shows off the elegant curves of the younger branches, and this will create a beautiful tree against the skyline.
History and Origins of the Drake Chinese Elm Tree
The Drake Chinese Elm is a selected form of the Chinese Elm (Ulmus parvifolia). That tree grows, as the name suggests, in China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and into India. Wild trees can be 60 feet tall and across, with a relatively slender trunk and a large crown. The leaves are small, between one and two inches long, and no more than an inch wide. They are a rich, lustrous green, with a row of soft ‘teeth’ along the margin. The tiny flowers are inconspicuous and rarely noticed. They are produced in fall, and by the summer of the next year you may see small pale-green, round seed pods, that might be mistaken for flowers. These later turn a soft brown color, but they are not produced in sufficient quantity to be a litter problem.
The Drake Chinese Elm first appeared in the catalogue of Monrovia Nursery, Azusa, California, in 1952. Monrovia had been founded in 1926 by a Danish immigrant, Harry Rosedale. He had an interest in creating new plants, so we can reasonably assume that the Drake Chinese Elm was developed at Monrovia, probably as a selected seedling. Rosedale noted its interesting form, which is described in the catalogue of the time as “sweeping branches, growing more upright than the regular form of Ulmus parvifolia”.
Although a tree grows at the Grange Farm Arboretum in Lincolnshire, England, the Drake Elm is normally only available commercially in the USA. It is important that this tree is grown from stem branches, as our trees are, and not from seed, as its special character will disappear in seedlings. Avoid cheaper seedling trees, which will not be as attractive or as interesting, and will not even be the Drake Chinese Elm. This interesting tree is widely recommended, and it might be called the ‘best tree nobody knows’. Because of revived interest in it, we do not expect our limited stock to be with us long, so order now and avoid disappointment.