Herbs to Know: Slippery Elm

All you need to know about the Slippery Elm

| March/April 1999

In the mid 1960s, Hall of Fame San Francisco Giants pitcher Gaylord Perry threw pitches that some baseball fans identified as the outlawed spitball. Decades before, pitchers had tried a little of everything to make the ball roll, bounce, and jump to confound the batter, but old-timers agreed that slippery elm bark, chewed as tablets or little slivers, worked best. Perry’s pitches, however, were excellent sinkers—not spitballs.

Slippery elm, still available in drugstores and natural product stores today, may also confound herb consumers. As an herb, it is often sold as a dietary supplement. Yet it is also approved by the U.S. FDA as an over-the-counter drug for soothing sore throats, tickly coughs, and other irritations of the mucous membranes of the mouth and throat.

Slippery elm’s classification as a drug recognizes its long ­tradition of usefulness in the United States, but only a few brief scientific papers address its effectiveness, and no clinical studies have been conducted. At the same time, extensive scientific research has documented the effectiveness of other medicinal herbs such as ginkgo, saw palmetto, and echinacea, but these remain rele­gated to the realm of dietary supplements, and their manufacturers can make no claim as to their medicinal effects.

What is slippery elm?
The Pennsylvania botanist Henry Ludwig Muhlenberg (1756–1817) first drew attention to the slippery elm tree in a 1793 publication, in which he named it Ulmus rubra. Later, the eminent French botanist Andre Michaux (1746–1802) named it Ulmus fulva; his was the first book on the flora of North America. Today Muhlenberg’s name is ­accepted as the correct one, although many herb books continue to use the obsolete U. fulva.

Ulmus is the classical name for elms. The species name rubra, meaning red, refers to the rust color of the tree’s buds before it leafs out in spring. Our common name “elm” survives unchanged from Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Gothic, and Teutonic dialects.

Knowing a plant’s current scientific name can be essential when seeking information about it. I once visited Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plains, Massachusetts, hoping to photograph a slippery elm tree. The afternoon passed as I searched a splendid elm grove for a tree tagged Ulmus fulva, the name I had in my head as the correct one for slippery elm. When I looked the tree up in a botanical manual, I found that I had passed by the slippery elm several times—it was correctly labeled U. rubra.

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