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The Best Elm Trees for Your Australian Garden

Weeping Elm Tree

Did you know that Australia is home to some of the most important elms in the world? It’s true! When elm populations in Europe and North America were being decimated by the Dutch elm disease, Australia’s trees were able to mature in safety, lining avenues and filling parks half a world away. Now, you can head to areas of Victoria, South Australia, and New South Wales and enjoy impressive elms dating back over a century.

Not only do elms offer wonderful shade but their changing leaf colours add beauty to their surroundings all year round. And though we’re used to finding elms in grand locations, like parklands and historical streets, there’s still plenty of options for those you looking to make a similarly stately impression in your backyard. Read on for our suggestions for the best elm trees for your Australian garden.

Elm trees in gardens

Before we dive in, it’s important to remember that elms are sizable trees. It’s part of what makes them perfect for parks, avenues, and other large, open areas. Some elms can reach heights of up to 30m, with a canopy spread of 15-20m—much too large for the average garden!

And that’s just what’s happening above the surface. Big trees mean big roots, and the last thing you need is an errant root system damaging structures or fence lines. Be sure to do your research and, whichever elm you choose, allow adequate space for it to grow and mature. And remember, you can always contact an arborist for guidance.

Elm trees are also deciduous, meaning that they’ll lose their foliage in the winter months. Some species might retain their leaves under certain conditions, but usually once those rich golden tones start to appear, it’s time to prepare for the leaves to fall. This can add extra maintenance, depending on where you’ve planted your elm, and also means you’ll have a few months to go before that new growth starts to show.

If you’re thinking that big trees might not be for you, or if you’d prefer year-round foliage, why not take a look at some of the best small evergreens in Australia?

Dutch elm disease

Dutch elm disease is responsible for the loss of countless trees across Europe, North American, and parts of Asia. While the bark beetles responsible for its spread have been present in Australia since the 1970s, the disease itself has yet to reach our local elm trees, though it has been found as close as New Zealand.

To protect our trees, Australia has strict biosecurity rules in place, but home gardeners can also do their part by buying from reputable local suppliers, and by monitoring their elms for progressive wilting and browning. If you find suspected Dutch elm disease, be sure not to disturb the area. Instead, take a few photos and get an expert opinion from either your local arborist (like us!) or the Department of Agriculture, Water, and Environment.

Worried about other tree disease issues? Here’s 9 subtle signs of tree disease you might have missed!

Now, here’s our choices for the best elm trees for Australian gardens!

The best elm trees for Australian gardens

Golden Elm (Ulmus glabra ‘Lutescens’)

Golden Elm Tree

Image from Alpine Nurseries

The golden elm is both beautiful and practical, offering golden deciduous foliage and plenty of shade for the summer months. Leaves start out a vibrant green, shifting to their signature yellow as autumn approaches. Fast growing, and reaching around 10m high, with a width of approximately 12m, it makes a great statement as a specimen or ornamental tree.

The golden elm also has good tolerance for air pollution, making it town and city friendly. Generally hardy and tolerant, it will be at its best in moist, well-drained soils, with plenty of sun.

Care includes pruning, fertilizing, and plenty of water until the tree is established. The roots of the golden elm can be invasive, so gardeners will need to keep a careful eye on them.

Chinese Elm (Ulmus parvifolia)

Chinese Elm Tree

Image from Wikipedia

Chinese elms are considered an invasive species in Queensland and New South Wales, so the next few elms might not be for everyone.

There are many different types of Chinese elm, but we liked the Burnley Select for its Australian roots (pun intended) and visual appeal. Grown from an elm from the Burnley Horticultural College at the University of Melbourne, this elm reaches heights of around 9m, with a spread of up to 7m. Preferring humus-rich soil, it is frost resistant and can handle colder climates, though it will struggle during droughts. General care includes pruning and regular fertilizer between growth cycles.

The glossy dark green leaves shift to yellow and red as the seasons change. Considered semi-deciduous, the elm may retain its leaves throughout the year, provided the conditions are right.

But the real feature of the Burnley Select is its bark. Exfoliating in sections, patches of grey, green, orange, and brown appear over the lifetime of the tree, making for some striking visuals.

For smaller gardens, the Red Emperor variant is a great choice, coming in at around 6 x 7m. Expect to see those small green leaves take on gorgeous burgundy tones in the autumn, and watch for the Chinese elm’s signature peeling bark as it matures. Tolerant of most soils, the Red Emperor prefers locations in full or partial sunlight. It’s also suitable for coastal areas—good news if you’re lucky enough to live by the sea!

Weeping Elm (Ulmus glabra ‘camperdownii’)

Weeping Elm Tree

Image from Landscape Plants

There’s just something magical about weeping trees, isn’t there?

A grafted form of elm, the weeping elm is perfect for the Australian garden, reaching heights of 3-4m, and widths of up to 5m. “Grafting” is a method of propagating trees, in which a “wound” is made in one plant and another attached to it, allowing the plants’ tissues to knit together to form something new with characteristics from both plants. It is most commonly used for fruit trees, but here it’s been used to create a smaller type of elm.

Weeping elm branches grow horizontally at first, before bending and forming a beautiful drooping canopy. Its leaves are large and elliptical, and stick to relatively simple colours, with green leaves shifting to yellow as autumn comes. But, of course, the real star of this elm is its shape!

Weeping elms are hardy trees, resistant to strong winds, pollution, and other adverse conditions. They prefer moist soil, full sun, and warmer temperatures. When maintaining a weeping elm, upward growing branches will need to be removed. An ideal specimen or ornamental tree.

Japanese Elm (Zelkova serrata)

Japanese Elm Tree

Image from Hillier

If you like your weeping trees with a little more colour and a lot more height, Japanese elms are the way to go.

We like the Kiwi Sunset variant for Australian gardens, with an expected height of 10m and a width of 6m. Lime green foliage shifts to gold as summer comes, with new growth showing lovely brown/orange shades. It’s a tough cookie too, adapting well to various PH levels and nutrient-deficient soils, as well as tolerating heat and drought.

If you have a lot of space available to you, the Green Vase, with its 14m height and 10m width is also a stunning choice. With distinctive bark colours and textures, and leaves that change from dark green all the way to a rusty red, it’s an incredible feature tree, if you have the space.

Plant your Japanese elms in areas with full or partial sun, with plenty of mulch and water. Prune regularly to encourage new growth and be sure to add fertiliser when that new growth appears.

Autumn Gold (Ulmus Sapporo)

Autumn Gold Elm Tree

Image from Academic

While most Australian gardens will need to steer clear of the larger elms, we couldn’t resist including the Sapporo Autumn Gold.

Reaching dizzying heights of up to 15m, with a width of up to 10m, the oval shape and dense canopy make this a great shade tree. But it’s the colour we really need to talk about, with green serrated leaves giving way to an incredible golden foliage during the autumn months.

Like most elms, it will do well in many sites and soils, though those with good water retention will be best. It is also resistant to Dutch elm disease, and regular pruning and fertilising is a must.

That’s just a brief selection of some of the elm trees available to us here in Australia – and if you’ve got the space, there’s even more to choose from, including the iconic English elm! You can plant them solo to make a decorative statement, or cluster some together for privacy, shade, and some incredible colour combinations. And, honestly, what could be grander than a long driveway lined with towering trees?

If you’re considering bringing a large tree into your garden, don’t be afraid to reach out to a local nursery or arborist for advice! And if, after reading all this, elms aren’t your thing, don’t despair – here are some uniquely Australian trees that might fit the bill!

References

  1. Significant Elms of South-Eastern Australia, Mt. William Advanced Tree Nursery
  2. 2021, How to Grow: Elm tree, Yates
  3. 2020, Dutch elm disease, Department of Agriculture, Water, and the Environment
  4. 2022, Ulmus glabra ‘Lutescens’, Speciality Trees
  5. 2022, Ulmus glabra lutescens – Golden Elm, Blerick Tree Farm
  6. 2022, Ulmus parvifiolia ‘Burnley Select’, Speciality Trees
  7. 2022, Ulmus parvifiolia ‘Red Emperor’, Speciality Trees
  8. 2022, Ulmus glabra, ‘camperdownii (Weeping Standard)’, Speciality Trees
  9. 2022, Ulmus glabra ‘Camperdownii’ – Weeping Elm’, Blerick Tree Farm
  10. 2022, Zelkova serrata, ‘Kiwi Sunset’, Speciality Trees
  11. 2022, Zelkova serrata, ‘Green Vase’, Speciality Trees
  12. 2022, Zelkova serrata – Japanese Elm, Blerick Tree Farm
  13. 2022, Ulmus davidiana var. japonica x pumila ‘Sapporo Autumn Gold’, Speciality Trees
  14. 2022, Ulmus Sapporo – Autumn Gold, Blerick Tree Farm
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