Elms – Ulmus SPP.: Edible & Medicinal Uses of the Slippery Bark of Wild Plants

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In Chippewa, gawa’komic, slippery elm is the medicinal star of the elms (ulmus spp.) native to Ontario. It’s also most popular local/Haliburton elm for foraging. But elm is at risk due to Dutch elm disease.

Around cottage country Ontario there are three main native elm (ulmus spp.) trees. The most common is American/white elm (ulmus americana) as featured in our pictures. It’s followed by rock elm (u. thomasii) and the more popular edible and medicinal slippery elm (u. rubra). Rock elm may be specifically native to the Carolinian forests of Ontario (if I am not misinformed), but all three of these species are native to Ontario. There are around a dozen elm species sighted in Ontario on iNat including some nonnatives.

American elm (ulmus americana)
American elm (ulmus americana)

Slippery elm is more populous to the south and isn’t even mentioned in Haliburton Flora, but it’s been noted here on iNat. American elm is uncommon and may be found at the edges of woods and in grassy fields. The tree closest to home base on the 100 Acre is in the middle of a field with no parent elm in sight. And the 1 Acre has a beautiful, likely 30+ year old white elm tree. Rock and slippery elm are both rarer here.

Edible Uses of Elms

Slippery and Siberian elms have the spotlight foraging-wise. Some prefer Siberian.

As with many trees, the inner bark is a famine food. In this case it makes a nutritive boiled gruel that can be made palatable with spice and sweetener. The edible mucilage and starch makes this a thick porridge. But as it’s at risk here it’s not a tree to be peeling to death, and thankfully the elm has a tastier bounty that won’t kill it..

The young winged seeds are edible. Strip off handfuls of these “samaras” when green or pick the brown ones off the ground. You can eat them raw or steamed and they taste something like pea or cucumber. The dryer ones need the papery covering removed first. The American elm also has edible samaras but they are hairy, drier and smaller.

Some folks may prefer to winnow the samaras to get the small sweet seeds out. You can freeze these oily seeds for later use.

The oily seeds are high in protein.

Medicinal Uses of Elms

Slippery elm is primarily said to support these body systems:

  • Digestive
  • Integumentary
  • Respiratory
  • Urinary

Medicinal tags include Astringent, Demulcent, Diuretic, Emollient, Expectorant, Laxative and Mucilage. See Medicinal tag key for more information.

Common usage includes the mucilaginous inner back of grown slippery elm trees for soothing a raw sore throat or a phlegmy cough. It’s usually sold dried and powdered. And taken in tea form for up to a few weeks. It’s used for lozenges too.

The same inner bark is also used digestively for conditions like hyperacidity and diverticulitis, perhaps combined with marshmallow. Astringent and soothing skin uses are common too, for conditions like eczema.

White elm bark can also be used, but slippery is the superstar here. However, taking the bark from any elm tree will likely kill it, so in a pinch it is better to chew the yellow inner bark from young twigs instead. And there are people who farm it (the bark is harvested when the tree is ~10 yrs of age). If you can’t find a sustainable, ethically harvested batch comfrey, marshmallow, and mullein are similarly soothing.

Alternative Uses of Elm

The fibres can be woven into rope and fabric, but the mucilage needs removed.

Elm wood is odorless and resistant to splitting and decay when wet, so it’s seen use in everything from food crates to wagon wheels to canoes.

Growing Ulmus SPP.

If you have white elm on your lot around Haliburton, protect it! Many older elms here in North America have been wiped out by Dutch elm disease. But we are lucky to still have quite a few around up here. If you would like to submit a report of a mature white elm in your area (> 250 cm circumference), contact elmrecov@uoguelph.ca. Read more about the Elm Recovery Project here.

American elm (ulmus americana)
American elm (ulmus americana)

Cultivators of American elm have been developed to resist the disease, and Siberian elm seems to have a little natural resistance. But growing the native ones, same for ash and other native trees being attacked by disease or pests, is fighting the good fight. The wildlife will still see use from the native trees even if the trees lifespan is diminished. And who knows, maybe yours will survive.

Catepillars of various polygonia butterflies like the comma and questionmark host on elms. There’s also an elm sphinx moth (ceratomia amyntor) and a prominent, the double-toothed (nerice bidentata) who host there, among others. Both of the named moths have shown up on mothing nights here for me, when I’ve hanged a white sheet with black lights shining on it overnight to check first thing in the morning. A fun activity here, especially around the beginning of July.

American elm can tolerate a wide range of soil and habitat conditions. If you’re in an area with Japanese beetles take note that they like to defoliate elm and perhaps take measures against that. If you’re felling a nonnative Siberian to plant any native it its place, you may want to leave the trunk of the Siberian fallen on the ground to see if elm oyster mushrooms will grow – or grow them purposefully on the trunk with purchasable elm oyster spores. They may show up on your new live tree too.

And welcome to our new publishing schedule! For years we’ve done a post every Friday, but to free up time for more projects we’re going to post a plant on every first and third Friday now. And because social media isn’t reliable for showing people what content they’ve followed, I’ve added push notifications here (that red button bottom-right). The newsletter could finally be active soon too! Hope to see you for all our future featured plants:)


Some people are allergic to elm.

And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation. Tannins are toxic if consumed in excess.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk. For instance, saponins commonly cause stomach upset.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

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Stalking the Healthful Herbs (Field Guide Edition)

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