Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra)
Early American Throat Soother
Fast facts: relieves sore throats, soothes burns and skin irritations, eases indigestion, treats minor wounds
When alumni come to visit the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy in Storrs, John Michael Edwards, PhD, is more than happy to show them around the old alma mater. But all the while, he’s got at least one eye on the department’s jar of slippery elm.
It seems that the graduates developed a taste for the stuff when they were students — and they aren’t afraid to raid the jar when they’re back in town, says Dr. Edwards, associate dean of the School of Pharmacy.
“In the old days, the pharmacy students had to be able not only to identify powdered drugs but to identify them in chunks — and slippery elm was one of them,” says Dr. Edwards. “If you suck on a piece of slippery elm, you get this mucilage out of it that’s sort of sweet. Every so often, we have an alumnus who comes back and pounces on the jar of slippery elm bark.”
Former pharmacy students aren’t the first to have coveted slippery elm bark. Before Dutch elm disease decimated the great slippery elm forests of the northeastern United States, this plant was perhaps the country’s favorite home remedy — used in sore throat lozenges and as a hot cereal (like oatmeal) for ulcers, heartburn and common digestive complaints.
That sweet mucilage apparently coats and soothes mucous membranes. “There’s a polysaccharide in the bark that’s very soothing, there’s no question about that,” says Christopher W. W. Beecher, PhD, associate professor of pharmacognosy in the Department of Medicinal Chemistry and Pharmacognosy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. A polysaccharide is a kind of carbohydrate.
Soothing Relief You don’t have to scout the forests for slippery elm trees in order to take advantage of this old-fashioned herb. You can still buy slippery elm throat lozenges in health food stores and some drugstores.
If you prefer a pleasant-tasting tea, add a cup of boiling water to a teaspoon of slippery elm powder or to slippery elm tea that you can buy at a health food store. Add sugar or honey to taste.
For a poultice to pack on burns, boils, minor wounds and inflamed skin, simply add enough water to slippery elm powder to create a paste. (Some people are allergic to slippery elm. If you find that the paste irritates your skin, discontinue use.)
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.