The American elm occurs naturally in an assortment of habitats, most notably rich bottomlands, floodplains, stream banks, and swampy ground, although it also often thrives on hillsides, uplands and other well-drained soils. On more elevated terrain it is most often found along rivers. The species' wind-dispersed seeds enable it to spread rapidly as suitable areas of habitat become available. American elm produces its seed crop in late spring (which can be as early as February and as late as June depending on the climate) and the seeds usually germinate right away with no cold stratification needed.
In the 19th and early 20th century, American elm was a common street and park tree owing to its tolerance of urban conditions, rapid growth, and graceful form. This however led to extreme overplanting of the species, especially to form living archways over streets, which ultimately produced an unhealthy monoculture of elms that had no resistance to disease and pests.