It is unlikely that Elm tree flowers would be mentioned in a discussion about late winter/early spring wildflowers. The flowers are tiny (about 1/4 inch long) and inconspicuous on most trees. Elms are wind pollinated, so showy flowers are not needed to attract pollinators. In Central North Carolina, Elms usually bloom in late February, well before the leaves come out, giving the pollen unobstructed flight in the gusty winds of late winter.
The Winged Elm – Ulmus alata – is the most common native Elm in the Falls Lake Area and the Central Piedmont. Its flowers, sparse and widely spaced on the branches, are difficult for a passing observer to see. Below are several flowers seen from only a foot away.
Occasionally a much heavier and more conspicuous bloom can be seen on a large, native American Elm – Ulmus americana. The flowers are still tiny, but are much more numerous.
Below is a closer look at the pendulous flowers of a Winged Elm. The flowers are monecious (Containing both male and female organs). The male anthers, which carry the pollen, are numerous in this photo. They are the reddish, rounded structures; red arrows point to several of the lower ones. A yellow arrow points to the female pistil, which houses the ovary. It is the greenish white fuzzy structure partially obscured by an anther.
In the following photo, the flower bud scales (red arrow) are open while the terminal leaf bud (yellow arrow) is still tightly closed. The leaf buds will not open until weeks after the flowers have bloomed. Note the white, fuzzy surface of the twig.
A flower from an American Elm gives a better illustration of the female pistil. In Elms, two carpels fuse together to create the pistil, which is then described as bicarpellate. The fuzzy stigmas line the open jaws and catch the pollen, which is then transferred to the ovary.
Winged Elms get their name from the flattened, corky structures that line many of the branches.
The branching pattern of the Winged Elm gives a skinny, contorted, almost scarecrow look to the tree that is enhanced by the corky wings.
There are a surprising number of large, mature, healthy American Elms in the Falls Lake Area. This has been attributed to the fact that the devastating Dutch Elm disease has had less of an effect in the southern parts of its range. Also, the American Elm populations do not form stands in this area, but are widely separated and buffered by trees of other species, preventing the spread of Dutch Elm disease. One large American Elm is pictured below.
Elms have played an important role in the history of Europe. In fact, Oliver Rackham devoted an entire chapter to Elms in his classic The History of the Countryside. Here are a few short excerpts:
“They (Elms) are the most complex and difficult trees in western Europe, and the most intimately linked to human affairs.”
“Of the village of Fleury near Verdun, where a million men killed each other in World War One, not one stone remains upon another; but the village elms have grown again from bits of root that lay near the surface of the cratered earth.”
All photographs were taken early in the first week of March, 2016.