Nature Notebook: Elm

Welcome to a new feature here on the blog! In an effort to learn how to paint trees, as well as to learn more about them, I’m going to do a series of tree profiles, where I attempt to paint a tree, and provide fun facts and identification tips about that family of tree. I also love taking pictures of trees, so I have a large back catalogue of tree photos in on my phone which I can use to help illustrate the points.

I’m keeping the title general (“Nature Notebook”) to allow me to explore other plant or animal species as I see fit!

My first tree is Elm!

American Elm (Ulmus Americana): Winter silhouette, summer silhouette, leaf detail

All art and photos in this post are by me, Billy Idyll. Please ask before reusing.

Kinds of Elm

Although I was, perhaps needlessly, more specific about species in the illustration, my ID tips will be for all kinds of elms because I’m not about to get that specific.

In North America you may find the native American Elm, which was once the most common street tree. But American Elm populations have been devastated by Dutch Elm Disease since the 1930s and are now fairly rare. In gardens and urban environments, you may also see European, Asian, and hybrid elms which may be less susceptible to the disease.

Another type of elm native to eastern North America is the slippery elm, known for its medicinal uses, and distinguished by its reddish-orange criss-cross patterned bark and bitter scent.


Elms are opposite-branching deciduous trees that are distinguished by their elegant vase shape. They can grow 80 feet tall!

A powerful old street elm photographed from below. June 2020 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Leaves are serrated and have an uneven base (one side of the leaf base is longer than the other.)

Elm leaves. Note the lobe shape, teeth, and irregular base. June 2021 in Plymouth, Vermont.

Painting Tips

For this elm, I followed the guidance in Trees, Mountains, and Rocks by Zoltan Szabo. Szabo points out the “Y” shape of an elm, which is narrower in winter and broader in summer when the tree branches are weighed down with leaves.

Elegant Y shape of a younger American Elm with just a few buds in spring. April 2019 at Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.
Rounded vase shape of older street elm. July 2020 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Because of their tragic story, I get excited any time I see an elm in the wild (or the urban wild), and I hope now you will too!

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