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We Americans use Siberia as an adjective even more than we use it as a proper noun. “Siberian cold...”, “Siberian desolation...”, as though this remote region of Russia was shorthand for the most inhospitable landscape on earth.

Maybe the pejorative use of the word is a relic of the Cold War, like our fallout shelters and surplus-store gas masks, when being condemned to a Siberian gulag was the equivalent of a Soviet death sentence.

Lost in the hyperbole is the geographic reality that much of Eastern Montana is more like Siberia than anywhere else on earth. From our latitude to our landscape to our weather, we're a stunt double for the windswept steppes of north-central Asia.

If you doubt that, look no further than the vegetation we share. Kochia. Russian olives. Russian thistle. Siberian elm.

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If that last item surprises you, then you've probably been deceived into thinking that many of the ornamental elm trees in our area are either Japanese elms or Chinese elms. Some may be, but the majority of the broken-down, scab-barked, wind-shattered elms in our shelterbelts and backyards are more likely to be Siberian elms than the more lovely elm species that hail from southern Asia.

The Siberian elm (Ulmus pumila), is native to Manchuria, eastern Siberia and northern China, and came to us the way many of our nonnative trees did, through the best intentions of land-grant universities looking for fast-growing trees to hold our soil and shade our lawns. The Siberian elm is well-suited to the alkaline soils of our prairie river valleys, is drought tolerant, can withstand brutal cold and grows quickly. It has the added benefit of resistance to Dutch elm disease, the fatal pathology that all but wiped out the stately elms of the East and Midwest.

But Siberian elms don't have the stature or the strong-limbed nobility of those American elms. Instead, their limbs are brittle and their bark scaly and frequently infested with insects. When injured, Siberian elms send up a profusion of secondary limbs, giving them a bushy appearance with few primary limbs.

Still, in areas where trees grow stubbornly, if at all, Siberian elms have provided welcome shelter, a generous if unintended gift from our former Cold War foes.

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