Working elm: A day harvesting slippery elm’s medicinal bark

One Sunday morning in mid-August, I left Asheville for the one-hour drive to my friend Doug Elliott’s wooded homestead in Union Mills, N.C. During my last visit, around the exact same time of year, he showed me how to harvest and prepare elderberry for tincturing. I didn’t know what lay in store this time, other than he said we would be “working elm,” but I knew it would involve swatting mosquitoes and flies, dodging briars, poison ivy and random angry yellow jackets.

Why drive 50 mountain miles to play victim to nature’s sadistic instruments? Doug is one of America’s preeminent herbalists, natural history authors, and folklore storytellers. As an elder living in organic union with the land, he is celebrated among new age wild crafters, ethnobotanists, and urban foragers.

I am not the only one who makes the pilgrimage to his secluded estate to learn the forgotten ways of the rugged settler — a medley of field and forest enthusiasts take counsel from Doug too. While the man makes a living telling stories and teaching, it’s less in the words of wisdom than in the work you come to do that makes for a meaningful visit. Plus, country people always have something that needs to be done around the house: Chasing Doug around the property and helping out —that’s what really sears the journey into the needy parts of the mind.

At 9 a.m., I pulled up a grassy drive and parked next to the barn, where Elliott and crew keep basket crafts, and woodworking tools. A few steps out of the car and I was on the front porch of Doug’s hand-built two-story rustic cabin, which has an old-timey (but functional) separate outhouse. Who needs air conditioning either, when the first floor is flush with surrounding earth to keep it a cool, albeit humid, 70 to 80 degree living-space? There is electricity; much of it allocated to online research and keeping the Doug Elliott website business going. On the ceiling of the front porch overhang, dozens of braid-fiber-strung, homegrown onions and garlic bulbs dangled, drying for the winter. With the myriad fruit trees bearing, it would soon be pick, slice, and dehydrate time for them too.

Both Doug and his wife greeted me, and we all exchanged the typical “year later” pleasantries: “What’s new?; How’s the family? Good elderberry harvest this year? And why do you have a caged blue jay on your porch?”

During the blue jay dialogue, I learned that the local vet brings the Elliotts ailing and nest-fallen birds so they can be put on the mend as close to the wild as possible — and the Elliott land fits the bill. Plus, they have a tender place in their hearts for critter therapy. Armed with an eyedropper that’s loaded with a high protein, cat food-egg yolk gruel, Doug’s wife nurses crippled animals back to life whenever she can. While we talked, a downy woodpecker flew to the porch and hammered away at seed block left on the banister — just one of dozens of recovered patients paying homage to its caregivers.

With a ladder, a couple of draw knives, a chainsaw, a rope, and a come-along, Doug and I went down by the creek where I would spend the next four hours sweating through every fiber of my blue jeans, long sleeve cotton shirt and mesh baseball cap.

Doug stood at the base of a slippery elm tree down by the creek and pondered where the 60-foot-tall, 13-inch-wide trunk should land. Figuring that the old elm wouldn’t fall in the nice clearing across the stream unless coaxed, he scaled the ladder to attach a rope that was subsequently connected to the pull-along over in the direction he wanted the tree to land. As Doug cut an open bird’s beak into the tree toward the planned landing pad, I cranked the winch to keep the tension on, so the tree would drop where it should. I admit: I stopped cranking when I heard the trunk cracking. Even though Doug said I could use the tree to which the crank was hitched as a shield, my never-tested logger instincts told me to run like I had stepped on a nest of bees.

Thankfully the tree landed just where we wanted it to. It was time to scrape it bare of its valuable medicinal bark.

Without using Doug’s vast botanical knowledge, I would have told you the slippery elm is almost indistinguishable from the American elm. One of the defining characteristics of the slippery elm is that a thin sliver of inner-bark will, once tucked into the cheek and salivated over, morph into a rapidly expanding goopy mass. It’s like having a mouthful of instant-grow toy soldiers. If this buttery brigade is not ejected before its seminal march, the experimenter shouldn’t count on a forest EMT team to rush to the scene to administer a tracheotomy.  But in the right dose, the fibrous source of this crème de elm is treasured among herbal medicine manufacturers, who pay upwards of $10 to 15 per pound for the freshly hewn tangled knots of inner bark.

Once a tree has been felled, the stripping is usually the easy part, if the chore is undertaken before the inner bark dries out for the fall, which is usually in June or July. However, we were stripping it in August. The inner-bark excavation took hours of hacking with a machete and yanking with the draw knifes.

For a quick break, we returned to the porch, where I reloaded with a bottle of water, an earthen mug of homemade herbal tea and a big helping of yard-grown fruit (raspberries, figs, pears, cherries and peaches). Amid the front porch gab, Doug’s son pulled up with a couple of college friends he brought over to “help around the house.” He’s starting his first year at Warren Wilson College, a private environmentally conscious, community-oriented, service-learning university.

With reinforcements available to finish the task, I bode them all goodbye, thanked Doug for another wild-skills life lesson and headed back home. For me it was a half-day adventure and a chance to feel the blisters in a woodsman’s shoes. For Doug and his family, it was another day of living off the land as masters of their own social, economic and philosophical reality.

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One thought on “Working elm: A day harvesting slippery elm’s medicinal bark

  1. Betty Cloer Wallace

    Jonathan, in researching Cherokee stickball play for a novel-in-progress, I came across an interesting 18th Century tidbit about slippery elm. Ballplayers immersed themselves in river water and then smeared it all over their bodies to make themselves, well, slippery and hard for an opponent to hold.

    I did not understand how it would work (no explanation in the old document) until I read your article about how the hydrated inner bark expands rapidly into a “goopy mass.”

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