Slippery Elm Bark – Beneficial Mucilage and More


Slippery Elm Bark comes from the Ulmus rubra species of Elm tree found in North America.  It’s range in America extends from North Dakota to Maine and Northern Florida to East Texas.  It’s often called by other names, including red elm, gray elm, soft elm, moose elm, and Indian elm.  These majestic trees grow to heights ranging from 40′ to 60′ on average.  It has reddish-brown heartwood, downy twigs, and broad oblong leaves which are between 4″ and 8″ in length.  What the tree is best known for, by herbalists and natural medicine producers, is its slimy red inner bark.  It’s the only part of the tree used to make medicine.  There are a scant few recipes circulating that are based on ground and dried Ulmus rubra leaves; leaf use isn’t explored in this piece which is focused on the inner bark.

Slippery Elm Logs Ready for Peeling – photo credit: Northeast School of Botanical Medicine

The slimy inner bark is harvested by scraping the outer bark of the tree off, almost immediately after the tree has been fallen.  Harvesting is usually done before July before the inner bark starts in annual fall drying-out cycle. Machetes and draw knives are used to scrape the outer bark off to reveal the thinner inner bark.  Alternatively, bark can be peeled from standing trees, but cautiously and only a portion of the tree can be worked each season to allow for it to heal.  This type of harvest occurs between March and June, when the sap is still running.  Trees between 10 and 15 years old are considered the best for sourcing inner bark.  Freshly harvested inner bark will be smooth, slightly leathery and creamy white in color.   It will have a sweet smell much like maple syrup.  After harvesting the strips are air-dried for approximately one week.

Slippery Elm Bark Peeling – photo credit: Northeast School of Botanical Medicine


After being dried, the strips are often ground into a fine powder.  When it is mixed with water, it generates a sticky sought-after material known as mucilage.  Mucilage is a thick, slimy substance similar to glue.  Almost every green plant produces mucilage as well as some microorganisms.  Plants produce mucilage to store water and food, to protect seeds during germination, and for thickening membranes.  In natural medicine, it is valued for both for its binding qualities and its medicinal properties.  The mucilage in slippery elm bark is a soothing, healing remedy for indigestion, sore throats, irritable bowel, Crohn’s disease, wounds, burns, and especially itchy, irritated skin.  Mucilage cannot be broken down by the human digestive tract, so when it coats something, it stays coated for a while.

Freshly rossed slippery elm

Slippery Elm for Natural Medicine

Slippery elm is a demulcent; it forms a soothing coating over mucous membranes relieving inflammation and minor pain.  It’s sought after as a natural remedy for irritable bowel syndrome, duodenal ulcers, colitis, diverticulitis, gastrointestinal inflammation, and overproduction of stomach acid.  Demulcents are often referred to as mucoprotective agents.  Pectin, honey and glycerin are also naturally occurring demulcents.  Its also used for the expelling of tapeworms or other intestinal parasites.

Cough medicines and sore throat remedies made from slippery elm are very effective and it’s also used to treat upper respiratory issues such as asthma and bronchitis plus it helps ease the irritation associated with laryngitis. Drinking slippery elm tea daily dramatically improves overall hydration and many women report it helps to alleviate vaginal dryness.  There is an indirect benefit for those who suffer from constipation.  Mucilage adds both bulk and softness to stool and should help to promote comfortable bowel movements.

When used externally, it is known to be one of the best possible poultices for minor wounds, ulcerated skin, boils, burns and inflammation.   A simple mixture of powdered slippery elm mixed with enough hot water to form a paste-like substance can be spread on a clean cotton cloth applied directly to the skin condition.   The tannins present in slippery elm bark are known to possess astringent actions and it is used to draw-out toxins and help in the removal of splinters.

Using Slippery Elm in the Kitchen

In addition to the soothing and healing actions, slippery elm bark contains as much nutrition as is contained in oatmeal and it’s commonly prepared as a thin cereal-like mixture as a breakfast alternative.  You can use it as a food additive by first mixing powdered slippery elm with water and then adding the mixture to soups, stews, or other dishes.  It is often flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg, lemon, or honey.  Drinking at night will induce sleep.

There is a lengthy list of nutrients found in slippery elm including beta-sitosterol, which is used to reduce benign prostatic hyperplasia and blood cholesterol levels.  It also has campestrol, tannins, calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, zinc, beta-carotene and vitamins B1, B2, B3 and vitamin C.

Other Uses for Slippery Elm Bark

The Native Americans used the inner bark to construct lightweight canoes, to weave baskets, for making light rope and bowstrings, and in some cases to build shelters.

Unsubstantiated Claims

Most natural remedies have healing properties attributed to them which are unproven.  Slippery Elm is no different.  It’s been identified as a remedy for herpes, syphilis, hemorrhoids, toothaches and even cancer.  There isn’t enough evidence to support these claims


Slippery Elm should be taken with plenty of water. Other drugs should be taken 1 hour prior to or several hours after consumption of slippery elm because the mucilage may slow the absorption of orally administered drugs.
Folklore says that slippery elm bark can cause a miscarriage when it is inserted into the cervix of a pregnant woman.  There is some evidence of it being used long ago, but in those few cases, the slippery elm was used as a medium that would absorb water, swell, dilate the cervix and ultimately cause a vaginal infection which caused a termination of the pregnancy.  It also has been purported to cause an abortion when taken by mouth, however, there’s no reliable information to confirm this claim.  As with most herbal remedies, avoid them if you are pregnant or breast-feeding and consult your medical practitioner with questions.  It is generally considered safe and side-effect free.  Test a small patch of skin before applying large amounts, as minor irritation can occur in some people.

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