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Soothing Slippery ElmPosted Wednesday, January 25, 2012, at 4:04 PM
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Trees aren't really fooled. The vast majority of native tree species in our region bloom before their leaves appear in the spring. Most of us don't notice this floral display except for redbuds and dogwoods later on. The flowers of most native trees are small and inconspicuous, dangling in thread-like tassels near the tree tops. One of the first to bloom is elms, particularly slippery elm whose russet-red buds are now swollen, ready to flower. It always blooms during the cold of winter.
Botanists call slippery elm Ulmus rubra (in older works, Ulmus fulva). Ulmus is the classical Latin name for elms. Rubra, means red, in reference to the dark reddish color of the winter buds. Our common name "elm" is the ancient name shared from Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Gothic, and Teutonic dialects, remaining unchanged in modern English.
Slippery elm occurs from dry upland soils to moist stream banks. Like American elm, slippery elm is also attacked and killed by Dutch elm disease (from the fungus Ceratocystis ulmi).
The inner bark of slippery elm is "slimy," and long used as an herbal remedy. When water is added to the powdered bark, the "slippery" brew is soothing to irritated mucous membranes of the intestinal tract and throat. It is still approved by the US Food and Drug Administration as a nonprescription drug for demulcent use (soothing to irritated mucous membranes).
The inner bark tea, once used as a nutritional brew for invalids and convalescing patients, would be my local survival food of choice. During the Revolutionary War, a soldier, separated from his company, survived for ten days in the wilderness on the bark.
Now ready to flower, its blooms will be noticed by few. When that inevitable Arctic cold descends on us again, and colds and sore throat become common, it's soothing to know that you can buy slippery elm lozenges at almost any pharmacy or natural food store to treat that sore throat.
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Steven Foster is a world renowned botanical photographer. He has published many books, including 2 for National Geographic
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