How to Grow: Japanese Zelkova

Zelkova serrata



Other Name

Sawleaf zelkova


Sun Requirements

full sun, part sun


Bloom Period and Seasonal Color

Mostly grown for its large size and reddish-purple fall leaf color and colorful bark


Mature Height x Spread

60 to 70 feet x 50 to 60 feet


Added Benefits

fall leaf color, drought tolerant, deer resistant


As shade trees go, Japanese zelkova is one that is often overlooked. This large tree has a shape similar to elm trees with a broad crown that produces bountiful shade in a yard. The leaves turn an attractive yellow, red or purple depending on the selection, in fall. The bark exfoliates revealing orange inner patches that contrast well with outer gray color. It’s not a messy tree and it tolerates air pollution, drought, and a wide variety of soils. It’s probably not grown more just due to lack of awareness. It can have some dieback in colder areas and Japanese beetles seem attracted to the leaves, but overall, it’s a nice tree for a large lawn area.


When, Where and How to Plant

Japanese zelkova is hardy to zone 5, so wouldn’t be a good choice in colder parts of New England. Purchase trees from a local nursery or through the mail for rare varieties and plant from spring to early fall in well-drained, moist, fertile soils. Space trees 50 feet apart in the landscape.


Growing Tips

Water young trees well. Once established Japanese zelkova are drought tolerant. Mulch trees with bark mulch or wood chips in the lawn to maintain soil moisture and protect the trunk from damage due to lawn mowers or string trimmers. Fertilize young trees with a tree plant food. Older trees don’t need fertilizer.


Regional Advice and Care

Japanese zelkova only need a little pruning on young trees to create a central leader system and remove competing branches. Remove dead, diseased and broken branches at any time. Although resistant to Dutch Elm disease, don’t plant where dead elm trees are located, to avoid any chance of this disease effecting the trees. Also, control Japanese beetles by hand picking beetles, with traps, and with organic sprays when the tree is young. Controlling beetles on large trees isn’t practical or necessary.


Companion Planting and Design

Plant Japanese zelkova as a street tree or in a large lawn or meadow area to eventually be a shade tree. Don’t plant large trees near power lines or buildings where they will have to eventually be pruned and their shape will be deformed.  Plant where you can enjoy the colorful bark in winter from the house.


Try These

‘Green Vase’ is a popular form that has a vase-shape with burgundy-red fall foliage. ‘Village Green’ is another popular selection that’s fast growing into a wide vase shape with red fall leaves and good insect and disease resistance. ‘Wireless’ grows more broad than tall. With a height between 20 and 25 feet tall it’s a good selection to grow under power lines. ‘Wireless’ has bronze fall foliage color. ‘Goshiki’ is a new 20-foot tall, variegated selection with white and green leaves.

Excerpted from my book, New England Getting Started Garden Guide.