Siberian Elm vs. Chinese Elm: What’s the Difference?

Siberian elm grove
© Famartin, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Written by Em Casalena

Updated: January 23, 2023

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Elms are very versatile trees that are commonly used for harvesting timber. Chances are, a lot of the furniture in your home was likely made from elm wood due to its durability and aesthetically-pleasing appearance.

Two very common types of elms found in the United States are the Siberian elm and the Chinese elm. These two species are often confused, and for good reason– they look very similar. However, telling them apart is easy with a little bit of know-how.

We’ll chop down the differences between the Siberian elm and the Chinese elm in this guide, so you can make the right choice about which one to grow on your own property.

Comparing Siberian Elm vs. Chinese Elm

Siberian ElmChinese Elm
ClassificationUlmus pumilaUlmus parvifolia
Alternative NamesAsiatic elm, dwarf elmlacebark elm
OriginAsiaEastern Asia
DescriptionA small elm that has a bushy appearance and greyish bark with bright green leaves.A graceful species of elm that can be either deciduous or semi-deciduous.
UsesCommonly used for lumber and as a landscaping tree.Mostly used as an ornamental tree, but its leaves can be used medicinally as a kidney stone treatment.
Growth TipsAlways grow in rich, permeable soil if you want your tree to grow quickly. Consistently damp soil is key.Prefers lots of irrigation during dry, hot seasons. Minor pruning is recommended to help saplings grow a strong trunk.
Interesting FeaturesCan be considered a pest in some parts of the world.This elm is common in Arizona as well as other places in the U.S. due to the fact that they can thrive in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 – 10.

The Key Differences Between Siberian Elm and Chinese Elm

These two trees are very similar, but their distinctions are important. They are both completely different species, but with some visual similarities. For instance, Chinese elm makes seeds that resemble Siberian elms in the fall, whereas Siberian elm produces seeds in the spring.

The bark of Chinese and Siberian elms is the main feature that can help identify them. Siberian elm bark is fissured with an orange hue in the crevices, but Chinese elm bark is mottled and may have an orange tint to it. On immature branches, it may be harder to tell the difference, but older bark makes it obvious.

Siberian elm is less disease-resistant than Chinese elm and is also particularly vulnerable to a wide range of insect pests and parasites. Siberian elm is not a good tree to plant in grass or close to sidewalks and driveways because it grows large, shallow roots that can break concrete and asphalt or surface in lawns.

Since the Siberian elm has some disadvantages, many people believe that the Chinese elm is a better tree for the majority of uses. While Chinese elm is thought to have the hardest wood of any elm and is harvested for timber and used for tool handles, furniture, cabinetry, etc., Siberian elm is quite brittle and prone to breakage in the event of high winds and snow loads.

Chinese Elm showing orange bark

The inner layers of the smooth, thin, mottled bark on mature Chinese elm trees are colored orange.


Siberian Elm vs. Chinese Elm: Classification

Siberian elm trees are classified as Ulmus pumila. Chinese elm trees are classified as Ulmus parvifolia. Both trees are part of the same genus of elms and the family Ulmaceae. They are both closely related to most timber trees, other elms, and Zelkova trees.

Siberian Elm vs. Chinese Elm: Description

The Siberian elm is a variety of elm tree that has frequently escaped domestication in both the cooler and drier regions of North America but is occasionally planted in landscaping. Siberian elm trees in maturity have rough, gray bark with protracted vertical furrows. Their seeds occupy less of the samara, and their leaves are typically more symmetrical at the base. The Siberian elm is a small to medium-sized tree that grows quickly. It can reach heights of 50 to 70 feet and spread out to 35 to 50 feet in width.

A small-leafed elm with striped bark known as the Chinese elm sporadically eludes landscaping in North America but is still occasionally used for landscaping. The inner layers of the smooth, thin, mottled bark on mature Chinese elm trees are colored orange. When compared to the Siberian elm, their seeds occupy a bigger percentage of the samara and their leaves are frequently more strongly asymmetrical at the base. The Chinese elm can grow at a rate of more than three feet per year, growing to a height of 60 to 80 feet.

Siberian elm lined street

The Siberian elm is a small to medium-sized tree that grows quickly reaching heights of 50 to 70 feet.


Siberian Elm vs. Chinese Elm: Uses

In the central United States, Siberian elm is typically planted for windbreaks, lumber, and ornamentals, while in the northern United States, it is planted for ornamentals. It is a plant that grows quickly and is incredibly hardy. Folk medicine has also made use of Siberian elm. The leaves are febrifuge and diuretic. They are described as antibilious, antidote, and lithotriptic when taken as a marijuana herb. The stem bark has lubricative, febrifuge, diuretic, and lenitive properties. It is used as a poultice on swellings, mastitis, and abscesses after being combined with oil and vinegar. It is important to note that there is no scientific evidence to support the Siberian elm’s therapeutic properties.

The hardest elm is thought to be the Chinese elm. Due to its excellent hardness, durability, and resistance to splitting, Chinese elm is regarded as the ideal wood for chisel handles and similar uses. The most common applications for Chinese elm lumber include furniture, cabinets, veneer, hardwood flooring, and specialized applications including longbow construction and tool handles. Similar to the Siberian elm, the Chinese elm is said to have antidote and lithotriptic leaves. The stem bark functions as an expectorant, febrifuge, demulcent, hypnotic, and lithotriptic. Although there is no evidence to back this claim, the blossoms are used to treat fevers and neuritis as well as kidney stones.

Ulmus parvifolia (Chinese elm)

The Chinese elm can grow at a rate of more than three feet per year, growing to a height of 60 to 80 feet.

©Daderot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons – Original

Siberian Elm vs. Chinese Elm: Origin

Central Asia, eastern Siberia, Russia, Mongolia, Tibet, China, India, and Korea are the native habitats of the Siberian elm tree. The Siberian elm has been extensively farmed throughout Asia, North America, Argentina, and southern Europe. It has also been naturalized in numerous locations, most notably across a large portion of the United States.

Although it now thrives in several places in the United States, the Chinese elm was originally found in forests in China, Japan, and Korea. They arrived in America in the middle of the 19th century.

Siberian Elm vs. Chinese Elm: How to Grow

Within ten to fifteen years, you should have a respectable specimen of this Siberian elm due to its rapid growth. You can trim them multiple times during a growing season as they flourish. It will be required to trim, particularly the secondary shoots. If you do not remove them, the tree may lose its primary branch, which will encourage secondary growth. Dropping the branch will produce deadwood, which can help you attain the desired look. Be prepared for this to occur, and if it interferes with your intentions, be cautious when pruning back these secondary shoots.

Care should be given when watering and feeding these trees since if they don’t get enough water, they’ll shut down some portions of their crown, leaving a lot of dead spots.

The Chinese elm also needs to be pruned numerous times during the growing season, like the Siberian elm. When given the proper care and attention it will develop into a large tree. Many fans think that a well-kept Chinese elm is the ideal illustration of a woodland tree. If you’re cultivating this elm in a pot, water the ground well and allow the excess liquid to drain through the pores in the potting tray. Until the earth is completely wet, keep watering. Place the tray in a greenhouse or another warm, sunny location. Whenever the soil starts to dry out, keep watering.

Siberian elm (Ulmus pumila) foliage

The Siberian elm has a bushy appearance and greyish bark with bright green leaves.


Siberian Elm vs. Chinese Elm: Special Features

Several areas, particularly the Midwestern United States, view the Siberian elm as an invasive plant. In just a few years, Siberian elm may colonize disturbed prairies and take control of them swiftly. It thrives in dry, poor-soil environments. On soils with little vegetation, seed germination is rapid and establishment occurs quickly. It might be challenging to distinguish between the Siberian and native elms because of cross-pollination. Additionally, it has good resistance to Dutch elm disease.

The beauty of the Chinese elm is well known. This tree’s beautiful weeping branches spread out like a crown, giving it a unique look compared to other elms. They feature clusters of leaves that appear in the spring as green and turn light yellow in the fall. They blossom in the late summer and are quite drought-tolerant. This tree comes in four different cultivars, including the Hokkaido, True Green, Drake, and Frosty cultivars. The Chinese elm is remarkably resistant to Dutch elm disease, much like the Siberian elm.

The Chinese elm might be a better fit for your landscaping needs, as it is a little more aesthetically pleasing than the Siberian elm. However, if you’re looking to grow trees for lumber, then the Siberian elm may be your best bet. Regardless, both of these classic elms make great landscaping trees, especially in residential or suburban areas. Why not plant them both?

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About the Author

Em Casalena is a writer at A-Z Animals where their primary focus is on plants, gardening, and sustainability. Em has been writing and researching about plants for nearly a decade and is a proud Southwest Institute of Healing Arts graduate and certified Urban Farming instructor. Em is a resident of Arizona and enjoys learning about eco-conscious living, thrifting at local shops, and caring for their Siamese cat Vladimir.

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