Slippery Elm (oil on canvas 24 x 30 in.)

7 April 2014 found me visiting a large Slippery Elm in a front yard about 8 km northwest of Aylmer, Quebec. As I stood back to photograph it with my back to the house it seemed to dance with the sky. 

The icy Ottawa River twinkled through a row of trees just beyond the snowy field across the highway. In my painting I didn't include that screen of near trees, because I wanted you to have a clear view of the river and across it, the hills north of Shirley's Bay on the Ontario side. I was rather disoriented here as I have always related to the Ottawa River running from west to east through Ottawa - but here it runs southeast to its big bend at Aylmer before flowing east to Ottawa.
The subject of my portrait is large for its species - 20 metres tall and 81 cm "diameter at breast height" -  evidently in its prime. 

I painted this tree at the request of our tree-expert friend Owen Clarkin, who directed me where to find it. He tells me that "A number of books state something to the effect that Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra) looks kind of like American Elm, but is also a little different; additionally it has very rough leaves. Such vague description, plus the fact that young vigorous American Elms (Ulmus americana) also can have rough leaves goes a long way to explaining the frequent misidentification of American Elms for Slippery Elm in the field, herbarium, and online sources. Contributing to misidentification is the great morphological variation possible for growth form and even leaf appearance in American Elm, and the fact that American Elm is very common to our region while Slippery Elm is uncommon.

"Once you've been lucky enough to find an actual Slippery Elm the difference is clear. To consider just the leaves compared to American Elm: Slippery Elm tends to have larger and thicker leaves with a rugose visual texture, leaf margins with less pronounced teeth, leaves often “folded” in half at a pronounced angle, and the leaves tend to hang “lazily” with tips pointed toward the ground. This last feature can be visible from a great distance away even as just a “jagged” leaf-silhouette below a main branch. Bark, twigs/buds, flowers and fruit are just as easily separated from the much more common American Elm.

"Slippery Elm is a useful species, for example as a medium-sized shade tree more suitable for smaller yards than its potentially very large cousin. Also, the species is noted for its medicinal bark and is commercially valuable in this regard as a google search of “slippery elm” quickly shows.

"Slippery Elm is at risk to some extent due to Dutch Elm Disease, and is seriously threatened by introgression hybridization with the invasive Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila) with which it can freely hybridize. However, the greatest threat may be obscurity: It is hoped that this series of Elm paintings contribute to a brighter future for our three native Elms."

This work of art, commissioned by Owen Clarkin, and donated as a fundraiser to CESA-EO is part of a series of paintings of Canada's three native Elm species and is intended to raise the profile of Elms as valuable landscape and ornamental trees in the post-Dutch Elm Disease world.


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