Elm, Common

Medical Herbs Catalogue


Elm, Common

Botanical Name: Ulmus campestris (LINN.)
Family: N.O. Urticaceae

Synonyms: Ulmi cortex. Broad-leaved Elm. Ulmus suberosa (var. Orme).
Part Used: The dried inner bark.
Habitat: Britain (not indigenous), Europe, Asia, North Africa.

Description: The Elms belong to the natural order Ulmaceae and to the genus Ulmus, which contains sixteen species, widely distributed throughout the north temperate zone, extending southwards as far as Mexico in the New World and the Sikkim Himalayas in the Old World.

The Common Elm (U. campestris, Linn.) is a doubtful native of England, found throughout the greater part of Europe, in North Africa, Asia Minor and eastwards to Japan.

It grows in woods and hedgerows, especially in the southern part of Britain and on almost all soils, thriving even in the smoky atmosphere of a city, but on a rich loam, in open, low-lying situations, attaining a height of 60 to 100 feet, even rising to 130 and 150 feet. In the first ten years of its growth the tree grows to 25 or 30 feet.

The branches are numerous and spreading, the bark rugged, the leaves alternate, ovate rough, doubly toothed and unequal at the base. The flowers are small and numerous appearing in March and April before the leaves, in purplish-brown tufts. If one of these tufts be examined, it will be found to be a short axis with a number of leaves, beginning two-ranked at the base, and going over to five-ranked above. There are no flowers in the axils of the lowest ten or twelve, in the axils of the upper leaves are flowers arranged in small cymes (in some species), but in U. campestris reduced to the one central flower. Each flower has a four-toothed, bell-shaped calyx surrounding four stamens and a onecelled ovary bearing two spreading hairy styles.

The seed-vessels are green, membraneous, one-seeded and deeply cleft, but the tree seldom perfects its seed in England, being propagated by root-suckers from old trees, or by layers from stools.

In age and size, the Elm closely approaches the Oak, but is more varied, a large number of named varieties being grown.

Uses: All parts of the tree, including sapwood, are used in carpentry. The wood is close-grained, free from knots, hard and tough, and not subject to splitting, but it does not take a high polish. It does not crack when once seasoned and is remarkably durable under water, being specially adapted for any purpose which requires exposure to wet. To prevent shrinking and warping in drying, it may be preserved in water or mud, but is best worked up soon after felling. In drying, the wood loses over 60 per cent of its weight.

Elm wood is used for keels and bilge planks, the blocks and dead eyes of rigging and ship's pumps, for coffins, wheels, furniture, turned articles and general carpenter's work. Elm boards are largely used for lining the interior of carts, wagons and wheelbarrows on account of the extreme toughness of the wood, and it has been much employed in the past for making sheds, most of the existing farm buildings being covered with elm. Previous to the common employment of cast-iron, Elm was very much in use for waterpipes.

The inner bark is very tough and is made into mats and ropes. The leaves and young shoots have been found a suitable food for live stock.

Elm Tree Disease: Investigations are at present being carried on as to the cause of a mysterious disease, known as the Dutch Elm disease, which is killing trees on many parts of the Continent. It first appeared in North Brabant in 1919, and spread until it is now all over Holland. By 1921, the disease was rampant in Belgium and in the same year it appeared in France, while in 1924 and 1925 it spread widely in Germany and it is also working havoc in Spain.

The first sign of the disease in trees up to thirty years old is a mass of dry twigs and leaves in the crown while the other parts are still green. Within a week, all the leaves of the tree may fall, or the leaves on one side of the tree may remain fresh, while on the other side they fall off. No cure has yet been discovered, and the tree eventually dies. Most investigators consider that the disease is caused by a fungus (Graphium ulmus), the infection being carried by spores blown from one tree to another.

To prevent the importation into Britain of this mysterious disease, the Ministry of Agriculture, early in 1927, prohibited live elms from the European mainland from being landed in England and Wales.

Constituents: Analyses of Elm wood show 47.8 per cent of lime, 21.9 of potash and 13.7 of soda.

A peculiar vegetable principle, called Ulmin or Ulmic Acid, was first discovered in the gummy substance which spontaneously exudes in summer from the bark of the Common Elm, becoming by the action of the air a dark-brown, almost black substance, without smell or taste, insoluble in cold sparingly soluble in boiling water, which it colours yellowish-brown, soluble in alcohol and readily dissolved by alkaline solutions.

The inner bark is very mucilaginous, and contains a little tannic acid which gives it a somewhat bitter and slightly astringent taste, it also contains a great deal of starch.

Medicinal Action and Uses: Tonic, demulcent, astringent and diuretic. Wasformerly employed for the preparation of an antiscorbutic decoction recommended in cutaneous diseases of a leprous character, such as ringworm. It was applied both externally and internally. Under the title of Ulmus the dried inner bark was official in the British Pharmacopoeia of 1864 and 1867 directions for the preparation of Decoc. Ulmi being as follows: Elm Bark 1 part, water 8 parts; boil for 10 minutes, strain, make up to 8 parts.

A homoeopathic tincture is made of the inner bark, and used as an astringent.

Fluid extract, dose 2 to 4 oz. three or four times daily.

A medicinal tea was also formerly made from the flowers. In Persia, Italy and the south of France, galls, sometimes the size of a fist, are frequently produced on the leaves. They contain a clear water called eau d'orme, which is sweet and viscid, and has been recommended to wash wounds, contusions and sore eyes. Culpepper tells us: 'the water that is found in the bladders on the leaves of the elm-tree is very effectual to cleanse the skin and make it fair.' Towards autumn, these galls dry, the insects in them die and there is found a residue in the form of a yellow or blackish balsam, called beaume d'ormeau, which has been recommended for diseases of the chest.

Other Species:
A variety of the Common Elm, the CORKBARKED ELM (U. campestris, var. suberosa), is distinguished chiefly by its thick, deeplyfissured bark, the corky excrescences along the branchlets causing them to appear much thicker than they really are. A North American species with this feature most pronounced is U. alata, which well deserves its name of the WINGED ELM.

The SCOTCH ELM, or WYCH ELM (U. montana, With. - formerly called U. glabra, Huds.), is indigenous to Britain and is the common Elm of the northern part of the island.

It is a beautiful tree, both in form and foliage, usually attaining a height of about 50 feet, though tall-growing specimens have been known to attain 120 feet.

It has drooping branches and a smoother thinner bark than U. campestris, its leaves equally rough on the upper surface, though rather downy beneath, are longer, wider and more tapering and more deeply notched. A further distinction is that whereas the seeds of the Common Elm are placed near the end of their oblong envelope, those of the Wych Elm are set in the centre of their envelope. Moreover, the Common Elm has a profuse undergrowth of young shoots round the base of the trunk and few are to be seen round that of the Wych Elm. This is probably the 'French Elm' of Evelyn. An upright form of it is called the 'Cornish Elm.'

The wood, though more porous than that of the Common Elm, is tough and hardy when properly seasoned, and being very flexible when steamed, is well adapted for boat-building, though for the purposes of the wheelwright and millwright is inferior to that of the Common Elm. Branches of Wych Elm were formerly used for making bows and when forked were employed as divining rods. The bark of the young limbs is very tough and flexible, and is often stripped off in long ribands and used in Wales for securing thatch and other similar purposes.

On the leaves of U. chenensis, a number of galls are produced, which are used by the Chinese for tanning leather and dyeing.