Chinese Elm Bonsai Meaning and Symbolism

One of our favorite bonsais here at Bonsai Alchemist is the Chinese Elm. It has such rich meaning and history, while the leaves have stunning serrated edges. There are few enthusiasts who don’t have this species as part of their collection, especially as it’s so easy to care for.

In this article, we take a detailed look at the Chinese Elm bonsai’s meaning and symbolism. You’ll not only learn about the spiritual significance, but also its commercial and industrial purposes. We’ll also evaluate in which countries it’s used the most.

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The Symbolism of the Chinese Elm Bonsai

As one of the most beautiful bonsai trees, the Chinese Elm symbolizes harmony. When grown in the formal and informal upright styles, it usually has a canopy that spreads evenly all around. You’ll also notice this feature in the wild with trees in nature. It brings the same harmony into your home, helping you achieve balance in all aspects of your life. 

Another three secondary meanings of the Chinese Elm bonsai are wisdom, intuition, and inner strength. We all reach moments when we need to decide on the right course of action. When things don’t work as we planned or go completely wrong, we need the strength to continue and not let the troubles overwhelm us.

The Chinese Elm also symbolizes calm, love, and serene energy. When we’ve achieved that harmony and overcome our troubles, we can focus on the calm energy that the tree passes on to us. We can also meditate while pruning the leaves for greater peace of mind.

For those with magical or esoteric minds, the Chinese Elm helps with predictions or with divination. It’s also a symbol of protection. For this reason, many people place it in front of their homes, and religious leaders may plant these trees in front of churches or temples.

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The Chinese Elm’s Rich History

While the Chinese Elm has a rich history in the native Asian countries of Japan, China, India, and Vietnam, it has a special place in other locations. The United States has its own connection to this mystical tree. To understand that bond, we need to look at the American Elm first.

Once upon a time in America, you would have seen Ulmus americana flood the streets with how much the species dominated many areas. Sadly, the US imported logs to Chicago in 1928, and they brought with them Asian elm beetles that destroyed the wood. What made it worse was that the pests carried Dutch Elm Disease fungal spores that killed many American Elm trees.

Enter the Chinese Elm during the 1800s. The species had been around for more than a hundred years, but all the focus had been on the local American Elm. Travelers imported trees, bonsais, and cuttings to the US in the early 1800s, but they didn’t get much attention until the American Elm trees died out due to Dutch Elm Disease.

It was then that US scientists and botanists realized that the Chinese Elm was highly resistant to the disease. Even bonsais remained healthy as DED spread through the US before authorities could get it under control. The lace-bark elm became incredibly popular at that time.

There was a wild debate at that time about which would be a better replacement for the American Elm: the Siberian Elm or the Chinese Elm. The former eventually proved to be brittle and unreliable for industrial use, so the Chinese Elm won the battle. 

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Uses of Chinese Elm in the Modern Day

Besides its ability to withstand DED and the many Chinese Elm meanings and symbols, there are practical uses that make the species loved in many countries. Here are a few of the modern uses, and we’ll share the passion for growing them as bonsais.

Timber and Wood

Chinese Elm joins Ash and Hickory as popular timber in the United States. The tough wood is exceptional for making many items, such as baseball bats, composite bows, and tools. The species is also known as the hardest wood among the elms. 

One of the top qualities is that it’s resistant to splitting, which is why they make incredible chisel handles. Then manufacturers and lumber mills cut the wood, they receive a peppery scent, which is unusual among the elms. The only issue is during drying, which tends to warp the wood if you don’t take precautions. 

Medicinal Uses

While eating various parts of the Chinese Elm is possible, it has specific medicinal properties when used correctly. Here’s a quick breakdown of some of these herbal attributes:

  • Antidote: While scientists and botanists indicate the leaves can provide an antidote, you’ll need to read about the other medicinal uses to understand what it’s an antidote for. 
  • Lithontriptic: This medical term means the Chinese Elm leaves can assist with dissolving stones in your kidneys or bladder.
  • Demulcent: The stem aids with irritation of inflammation, especially around the mouth or other infected mucous membranes.
  • Expectorant: Helps with easing phlegm in air passages and coughs, especially with bronchitis.
  • Diuretic: Relieves your kidneys by removing excess sodium.
  • Neuritis: Assists with inflammation in the nervous system
  • Febrifuge: Brings down fevers, mostly when digesting the flowers

Cultivation and Landscaping

As you’ve seen in the history of the Chinese Elm, America needed to replace all the American Elms that died due to the Dutch Elm Disease. Since this species had a hardened defense against the fungus, it was the best choice for landscaping. It wasn’t long for the US to cultivate and propagate as many of them as possible. 

Besides parking lots, the Chinese Elm is grown down long avenues, in small planters, and in patios. Besides the United States, you’ll find them used universally for landscaping worldwide. The only exception is in Antarctica. 


Of course, our main interest is the Chinese Elm as a bonsai. It’s one of the most popular species since it can handle most conditions. It’s ideal for beginners and as an indoor or outdoor bonsai, and the options are almost endless.

One of the most attractive features is the serrated leaf. When kept small, they make dense foliage in the canopy. In the summer, you’ll see small white flowers forming clusters that look absolutely beautiful. There are few people that don’t find the Chinese Elm gorgeous as a bonsai in their home.

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The Most Common Chinese Elm Cultivars

While the Chinese Elm is a species, there are specific varieties or cultivars with unique properties. It may be something as small as a change in leaf size or color. Others have different hardiness levels. Here’s a quick selection of the most common types:

Be sure to click the links to read more information about them.

To Which Family Does the Chinese Elm Belong?

The Chinese Elm scientific classification indicates that the family is Ulmaceae, which belongs to the elms. There are two primary genera, namely, Ulmus that contains the true elms and Zelkovas.  You’ll find some specific properties that set it apart from other families.

For one, it has a mucilaginous substance in the bark and leaves. The Chinese Elm uses it for movement and growth, developing in the opposite direction to which the mucilage is secreted. It’s due to this and other properties that it has wonderful medicinal uses.

Of greater fascination is that the Chinese Elm belongs to the Rosales order, which obtains its name from the Rose genus within it. The Elm family is only one of nine within this order, with 7,700 species altogether. In some distant relationships, it therefore shares similar DNA to roses, blackberries, strawberries, and many others.

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Chinese Elm in Folklore

The elms, in general, share some part in folklore. There are many stories that hail from ancient times, especially with the Druids and other esoteric groups. Here are some of the more well-known tales of elm trees.

Greek Mythology

For those who don’t know Greek mythology, we have Orpheus as a hero who sets off into the Underworld to rescue his wife, Eurydice. He played the harp with such passion that he enchanted everyone around him. When he played a love song to her, an Elm Grove erupted at the spot, which had never happened before.

Celtic Mythology

Celtic mythology was also obsessed with the Underworld. It mentioned elves that guarded burial mounds with Elm trees surrounding the area. They ensured that the gateway to the Underworld remained protected. Elms were also popular trees for them to live in, and are used in some popular fiction novels as common abodes. I even used it in my fantasy book, The DragonRider, as one of the types of trees the Elder Elves built their homes in.

British Lore

While England and other British locations have many elms as hedges and trees, they named them after specific customs. For example, there were Dancing Elms for the May Dance ceremonies. There were also Alto, Bass, and Tenor Elms, which we guess has to do with singing or choir groups. Pastors and other religious leaders would often stand beneath majestic Elms while preaching.

Scottish and Gaelic Lore

Scotland saw the Wych Elm as one of the most popular species in ancient times. The Gaelic term was leamhan or Loch Leven, and many people used it to dye wool as an interesting fact. It was seen with a more practical view than mythological, with the leaves used for feeding livestock or for medicinal purposes.

Relationship with the Japanese Yew

If you’ve read our article on the meaning of the Japanese Yew, you’ll realize the connection with the Underworld. The Elm was used to make coffins in medieval times, which is why it’s associated with death. Massive branches had fallen down during wartimes, causing people to believe the trees simply waited to kill humans when they had the chance as retribution for destroying nature.

Harry Potter Universe

Harry Potter fans know that wands are made from mystical, strong trees that grant power to the bearer. If you know your HP lore, you should already have guessed that Lucius Malfoy had a wand made from elm. The wood is particularly good when it comes to spells and charms.

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The Mystic and Fantastic Chinese Elm

Looking at the Chinese Elm meaning and symbolism in light of the details above should cause you to love your bonsai even more. There’s so much tradition and culture that goes into it, and you can share it with your children when caring for it. You can even make your own tales to make the legacy of handing the bonsai over even sweeter, making it an heirloom in your family.

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Shaun has two passions in life that combine into an extravagant show on Bonsai Alchemist. The one is for writing and the second bonsais. He’s been writing fantasy and horror novels since 2000, while also creating online content since 2015. He’s involved with writing for films and games. Finally, he’s also the owner of a book publishing company.

He received his first bonsai as a gift in 2009 and has been growing several species in his quiet home in South Africa. He prefers propagating new life instead of buying bonsais at the store. His son and daughter share his love for nature, while his wife stares on at her introverted hermit husband.


Shaun M Jooste


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