Beautiful little Chinese elm forest

Another of my favorite and best bonsai for beginners is the famous Chinese elm, Ulmus parvifolia; it is a member of the Elm family, Ulmaceae.

A native of China, it was introduced to the U.S. in the mid-19th Century as a replacement for American elms killed by Dutch Elm Disease. Very hardy, cold-resistant, pest and disease-resistant, Chinese elm is a superior species for bonsai … when grown properly (see Worst Feature below).

Chinese elms:

  • grow to 50’ tall and 1-1/2’ in diameter, and
  • have leaves that are ¾ to 2” long, 3/8 to 3/4” wide, elliptical, saw-toothed, and shiny dark green.

Best Features

Growth habit: Chinese elm is a fast grower. In the ground they can produce branches that are six feet long in a single season. The new shoots of containerized specimens grow fast as well, but also produce secondary branching within the same growing season. Growth is in distinct rounds, usually three each season.

Leaf-size reduction: the leaves easily reduce to ¼” with ramification. No special techniques are required, the leaves reduce on their own.

Ramification: outstanding, beginning in the first developmental year as the new shoots produce secondary and even tertiary growth with no prompting.

The Chinese elm forest you see here was created in 2012 from material grown as cuttings. The primary training was to trim the growth to produce the proper silhouettes for the individual trees, along with a little wiring to direct the apexes of the two smallest specimens. All of the ramification you see developed through this process within two years.

Root growth: as with other elms, root growth is vigorous enough to require root-pruning every other year, every third year as an absolute maximum to prevent weakening of the tree. As with other elms, the roots must be pruned with a very sharp pair of shears as the bark tends to pull away from the inner core very easily.

Worst Feature

The absolute worst feature of Chinese elm is its abuse by the commercial bonsai trade itself. The hideous, so-called S-curve Chinese elm is one of the banes of the art of bonsai. This is a shame, since properly trained Chinese elm bonsai are a true delight, and in my opinion every collection should have one.

Sources of Chinese Elm

Chinese elm is available in both the commercial tree trade as well as the bonsai trade. I recommend against buying an S-curve Chinese elm. There are bonsai and pre-bonsai available that are much better suited to anyone’s collection.

You can propagate Chinese elms yourself once you have a specimen. Cuttings root in about 6 weeks in late spring to early summer. They should be about 1/8” in diameter when struck.

Other Information

Watering: normal watering routine. Always use a well-draining soil.

Feeding: either organic or inorganic at full strength during the growing season. No special requirements.

So What Do You Think?

This is a great tree for beginners or even seasoned bonsai artists. But I would really enjoy hearing your thoughts and your suggestions! I’m always happy to answer any questions you have. Just leave your comment(s) below and I’ll get back to you right away.