Country Lore: American Elm Firewood

You might wonder why someone would sow the seeds of American elm trees that are almost certain to get sick and die in adolescence. Two words: free firewood.

Today, the elm seeds that I scattered 15 to 20 years ago are feeding our stove with perfect logs of pre-dried wood. American elms once grew into large graceful shade trees, but most of those giants have died from Dutch elm disease, a fungus spread by small bark beetles. The elms are not becoming extinct, however, and you can start your own from seed.

The disease only seems to affect trees more than 6 or 8 inches in diameter. This is also about the stage when elms reach sexual maturity, and so they are usually capable of casting some seeds to the wind before the fungus kills them. Flowers appear on elm trees in the early spring just prior to the leaves emerging. Watch for the flat, round waferlike seeds to fall a month or so later.

Sometimes a few large elms will have managed to avoid the disease, and these are the best sources of seed. In a good summer you can rake up a sack full of seeds and then simply scatter them along a fence row, trail or other suitable area. American elms will grow on most soils throughout the eastern half of the United States. Trees grown close together will produce tall, straight poles with few side branches. Wilting and browning leaves are a sign of the disease beginning.

Eventually the bark will begin to fall from the trunks, and when the trunks are bare, you have perfectly dry standing deadwood. At this stage you can simply fell the trees, saw them up, and stack the logs directly on your “this winter” woodpile. My wife, Carol, and I have burned elm logs in our woodstove the same day we cut them. Trunks of small to medium diameter are often usable without splitting, although the dried wood does split easily.

A fence row given over to elm trees will also become a natural nursery for other trees and even berry bushes that grow in your area, thus providing a variety of potential firewood as well as wildlife food and shelter. An added bonus of having dying elms on your land is that you may sometimes find morels — highly prized, edible, springtime mushrooms — growing around the trees. American elm may not rank up there with prime oak firewood, but it is still a very adequate fuel.

Terry Morgan
Cuba City
, Wisconsin

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