Slippery elm, (Ulmus rubra), is a medium sized tree found over nearly all of the eastern United States. It favors moist soils and is quite tolerant of flooding. The best place to find slippery elm is on the edge of swamps. Though common, identifying it might be difficult.
American elm flourishes in the same areas and to a novice they look nearly identical. Both have roughly oval shaped leaves pointed on the ends that are somewhat asymmetrical at the base. The edges or margins of the leaves have two different sizes of teeth. Slippery elm leaves are rough textured and a bit broader than those on American elm. The twigs are a bit stouter and the buds are darker also. Slippery elm is also more tolerant to the Dutch elm disease, and they have a narrower branching pattern than American elms. Why do we care about elm identification?
Slippery elm bark is a great sore throat remedy. Some use it to treat acid reflux, ulcerative colitis, diarrhea, toothache and skin conditions. It is a major ingredient in numerous commercial preparations. Slippery elm has no known side-effects. Since it coats the stomach and digestive tract one might assume it could interfere with nutrient absorption, but that has never been proven.
The ingredient that is effective in coating the throat is mucilage, a jelly-like substance that is found in the inner bark. A piece of whole, shredded or powdered bark steeped in hot water is all that is necessary to coat the throat and relieve the pain. My experience has been that each treatment lasts a couple hours, sometimes longer. The stuff works.
Collect the bark by making deep parallel vertical cuts on the trunk a few inches apart and teasing the bark away from the wood. Remove the bark in long strips leaving plenty intact so the tree doesn’t suffer. This bark can be air dried and stored in a cool dry dark place. Leave the samples as they are until using some or grind the dried inner bark into a powder. Store this in a sealed container. The mucilage keeps a long time.
Other ingredients may make the tea more palatable. I looked at the ingredients of a commercially formulated product and found licorice root, cinnamon, and black cherry bark listed as prominent ingredients. I use a little cinnamon in mine along with some honey to increase palatability. I mentioned in an earlier article that black cherry leaves and bark are toxic, and in appreciable quantities they are. Some sources tout small amounts of cherry bark as being therapeutic, but I generally shy away from it.
Whether you are using a commercial preparation or your own mixture, drink the tea slowly, letting it slide down your throat. If you can tolerate a hot liquid, results will be better. By the time your cup of tea is gone, so will be your sore throat.
For those hesitant about making their own, many commercial preparations are available. Some are a little pricy, but probably no more so than traditional pharmaceuticals. Also, I believe there is psychological benefit from attacking a problem and not taking what we consider an artificial drug. Sometimes perception and the feeling of self-sufficiency can be important healing aids. I’m not suggesting that we all become our own pharmacists and treat ourselves for everything, but the power of the mind is great. It just makes you feel good when you solved the problem yourself.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.