If you have ever enjoyed listening to a concert being performed on the porch of Bayne Library you may have been sitting beneath our Japanese Zelkova tree, Zelkova serrata, with its spreading branches and delicate pendulous foliage framing the view.

Japanese Zelkova, which also goes by the common name Keaki, is native to Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and Manchuria. It was introduced to America in 1862 prior to when our library building was first built as the home of James Madison Balph and Amanda Balph (formerly Bayne) in 1875.

There is a lot to love about the Japanese Zelkova tree as it provides an abundance of shade and has a graceful romantic form. In addition to being known for its hardiness as it is tolerant of drought, heat, wind, and urban conditions, Japanese Zelkova has been promoted as a substitute for the American Elm tree due to its resistance to Dutch Elm disease. The only drawback is that it does not attract or support much wildlife as it is not native to our region.

The Zelkova tree is Monoecious, which means the tree has male flowers and female flowers in separate structures on the same tree. The below photograph by Kenpei shows the tiny inconspicuous flowers. They are difficult to notice as they are yellow-green and occur in tight groups along new stems. The female flowers give rise to small wingless drupes that ripen in late summer to autumn eventually maturing to brown.

Leaves are simple and alternate with sharply serrated margins. Zelkova leaves can differ in size on the same tree depending on the type of twig and its position in the crown. Fruiting shoots tend to produce smaller leaves with shallow indentions at the serrated edges while vegetative shoots tend to have larger leaves with coarser indentions.

The mature brown drupes often fall attached to the entire twig, with the leaves functioning as a parachute to carry the drupes containing the seeds away from the tree.

Autumn coloration varies, it can range from subtle golden hues to attractive shades of yellow-orange to reddish-brown. 

The bark is typically grayish-brown to grayish-white with numerous lenticels which are small pores through the protective outer bark that allow gas exchange between the living tissue of the inner bark and the surrounding air. The young bark remains smooth for many years but eventually with age it exfoliates into patches revealing the orange inner bark.

Japanese Zelkova wood is valued in Japan and used often used to create Tansu which is traditional mobile storage cabinetry. The wood is renowned for its beautifully dynamic wavy grain and bright yet calming color.

Japanese Zelkova wood is also considered ideal for the creation of taiko drums due to the wood’s hardness and density which gives the drum its particular tone. Japanese Zelkova tree trunks are hollowed out and carefully chiseled into the shape of a drum. Once the wood has been aged and the exterior has been thinned down to refine the shape using hand-tools, the inner shell is finally carved with precise patterns that are incredibly ornate.  These beautiful patterns effect the resonance and timbre of the drum. Learn more and take a look at the intricate patterns concealed within taiko drums.  ​

In addition, Japanese Zelkova trees are also popular as bonsai specimens.

Book Recommendation:

National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees – Eastern Region by Elbert L. Little contains color images of bark and leaves in addition to copious information about each tree type in regards to description, habitat, and range.

Learn more about all the Trees of Bayne Park and explore our Interactive Bayne Park Tree Map to see the locations, photographs, and names of over a dozen different species of trees. Be sure to also visit our Treesources page to learn about local trees, caring for trees, and more.

Written by Linda, Spring 2020