Wild medicinal plants have been used to cure ailments for thousands of years, and are still very much in use today.
Over 40 percent of prescription drugs sold in the U.S. contain at least one ingredient derived from nature. Herbal medicine is very big business, with sales topping over 500 billion dollars annually.
The Appalachian Mountains where we live is very plant rich place, and many folks make some extra income by finding and collecting wild plants, roots and bark to sell to local dealers, who in turn sell them to pharmaceutical companies. Ginseng root is probably the best know medicinal plant dug and sold around here, but many others are sought out as well, including black cohosh, bloodroot, golden seal, and slippery elm bark.
The price paid for elm bark has spiked over the last few years, and so it is a popular medicinal to collect. Collectors are of course supposed to get permission from the landowner to obtain plant material, but unfortunately that doesn’t always happen. I’m getting reports each year from folks that own some woodland where illegal collectors have stripped the bark off of their slippery elm trees, which of kills the tree. The elm bark has tough strong fibers that allow collectors to start strips at the base of the tree and pull bark off (zipper like) as far as 12 feet up the tree.
Slippery elm (Ulmus rubra) is a common tree in our area, preferring to grow in moist sites like mountain hollows and drains. It is also called red elm because the wood has a reddish tinge. The leaves are broadly spear shaped and sandpapery to the touch, and the bark is gray, with ridges running up and down the tree in a wavy pattern. It got its slippery name from the inner bark, which has mucilaginous properties, meaning it secretes a sticky mucus when processed. When you chew on it, it feels kind of how okra feels in your mouth, a sensation that’s kind of slimy.
This slimy attribute is in fact what makes slippery elm bark useful as a medicinal, and has a long history of use by Native Indians, who taught it to our pioneering forefathers. It is very soothing to the internal mucous membrane of our body, and is used for sore throats, indigestion, and to treat burns, bruises, or cuts. It is sold over the counter in pills, drops or a powder.
Spring is the time to beware of elm bark thieves, as that’s when the bark is easiest to peel off the tree. Giving permission to someone to collect the bark is up to the landowner, but keep in mind it will kill the tree. Slippery elm is not a highly valued timber species, but has been used for chair rockers and curved banisters. It can make a good sized tree up in the mountains.
Steve Roark is the Area Forester in Tazewell, Tenn. for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Forestry Division.