The gummy lining of the slippery elm’s bark has long been used in North America, and especially in Appalachia, as a soothing agent for coughs, gastrointestinal ailments and skin irritations. But now, slippery elm and other herbal products once used seasonally by local residents are in demand by millions.
“There’s a huge market in botanicals going into herbal medicines,” said John Garrison, a National Park Service spokesman. “Virtually everything on public lands has a market.”
Slippery elms are native to North America and can be found from Canada to Texas. The authorities say the prime season for stealing the bark is mid-June and early July.
A half-dozen suspects have been arrested this summer on suspicion of poaching the bark here in the Daniel Boone National Forest, which comprises 706,000 acres along the Cumberland Plateau in the Appalachian foothills of eastern Kentucky.
“You’ve got some old mountain boys who know the trees, know the terrain,” said Barry Bishop, an officer with the Forest Service.
Since the wood has no commercial value, the stripped trees are left to die. About a dozen trees face that fate for each 50-pound sack of bark, which can fetch $150 if the bark is dry. “If you find enough trees, it’s not going to take long to get a few pounds,” said David Taylor, a botanist with the Forest Service. “It’s a quick buck.”
Other trees and plants are also in danger. Officials at Great Smoky Mountains National Park recently joined with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture to mark American ginseng roots with a permanent dye and tag them with electronic tracking devices to fight illegal picking. American ginseng is believed by some to fight fatigue and stress-related ailments.
While the Forest Service issues permits for harvesting some plants, like ginseng, it does not allow any type of bark removal.
“It’s not a lifesaving herb that’s worth destroying forests over,” said Dr. Michael Hirt, the founding director of the Center for Integrative Medicine in Tarzana, Calif.
The demand for the slippery elm’s bark has landed the tree on a protection list kept by the National Center for the Preservation of Medicinal Herbs, a nonprofit group in Ohio that researches safe ways to grow and replenish medicinal plants, like ginseng, bloodroot and black cohosh.
Armando Gonzalez-Stuart, a researcher at the University of Texas El Paso/Austin Cooperative Pharmacy Program, said the herbal industry should cultivate slippery elms on private property and harvest the bark in a way that preserves the trees.