In 1947 I was given a new book for Christmas, a brand new hot off the press book. I was barely 5 years old and had learned to combine letters into words; and if the book had pictures, I was all set to figure it all out. Raggedy Ann and the Slippery Slide had both words and pictures, a plastic tabbed spine, and the cutest little red yarn-haired ragdoll I had ever seen. I read that book to death, and now I only have the cover left, but those words and pictures are imbedded in the memories of my heart. I drew Raggedy Ann's camel with the wrinkledy knees over and over again, because my knees were wrinkledy just like his.
At about the same time, Aunt Bett introduced me to the slippery elm; the slippery elm and the slippery slide coalesced in my mind. When I thought of one, I also thought of the other. I thought maybe I would have a slippery slide growing right out of the slippery elm tree. Ulmus rubra grew in the poor soil of the rocky cliffsides in the mountains. The one I remember grew alongside the creek just up the hill from Aunt Bett's garden. It was gorgeously beautiful in the fall, bright yellowy gold against the brown of most other leafed trees beside it. It is a small tree that is native to North America and is a rare or threatened species in some states. It is a deciduous tree, growing about 50 feet tall. The trunk is dark brown to reddish brown, and the bark is rough and thick. Alternate dark green toothed leaves, 6 to 8 inches long, are oval and asymmetrical, with a rough surface above and hairy below. Dark brown flower buds with orange tips open into small flowers from March through May, in very inconspicuous clusters at the end of the branches. I realize now that during my childhood, my great Aunt Bett was slowly killing our slippery elm, and she didn't even know it. Nor did I.
This is what happened. The bark, which is the only part used, is collected in spring from the bole and larger branches and dried. In some areas large quantities are collected. The wood has no commercial value, so eventually the tree is stripped naked of its bark and gradually dies.
North American Indians were the first to discover the healing powers of the native slippery elm. They found that when the tree's inner bark comes in contact with water, the gummy substance, or mucilage, surrounding its fibers swells and produces a soothing and softening ointment. They used the salve externally to treat skin problems ranging from chapped lips to burns and wounds. Surgeons in the American Revolution treated many gunshot wounds with poultices of slippery elm. From Indian medicine men settlers also learned of the effectiveness of brews made from the tree's bark in treating internal ailments. Since the early days, herbalists not only have used slippery elm for skin and internal problems but also have found that the tea has nutritional value and is good for invalids. The plant was once listed in the U.S. Pharmacopeia, and its use as a soothing medication continues today in many rural areas. Research has established that it does have the demulcent (soothing to the mucous membranes) and emollient (skin softening) properties that have been ascribed to it in folk medicine.
I remember that Aunt Bett always said that the older the bark, the better the remedy. She stripped the bark down with the chopping motion of a large machete like knife that I was never allowed to use. I could only stand at a distance and watch. It was the inner bark that was used, so that meant two knife chops per strip, one to get rid of the outer bark, and another to remove the inner bark. That strip of inner bark is tough and flexible with a fibrous texture, finely striated on both surfaces, the outer surface is a sort of reddish yellow, with patches of reddish brown, the latter being parts of the outer bark. Aunt Bett allowed the bark to dry, then she ground it into a powder. If she ground a coarse powder, it was to be used in poultices, and her finely ground powder was used for making a mucilaginous drink. The mucilage in the bark, when moistened or added to water, swells and is so abundant that just a few grains of the powdered bark will make a thick jelly in just an ounce of water.
Aunt Bett was very patient when she explained things to me. I would imagine that she did not dream of all the medical advances to come, and she was preparing me to follow in her healing footsteps, making do with remedies that nature provided. I remember one time when she traded some slippery elm bark salve for a chicken. She did not have any farm animals, and much of the protein that she consumed came from bartering. People were glad to pay for the salves with the gift of whatever food they had to give her. Those were the days of a "chicken in every pot on Sunday."
I do remember one drink that Aunt Bett made from the slippery elm powder. I thought it was a good drink until I watched her make it one time. She beat up an egg with a spoonful of the finely powdered bark, then she poured boiling milk over it, sweetened it with honey, and to that she added a peppermint stick of candy. I was fine drinking it, until I saw the raw egg she blended into it. There was just no way I could drink a raw egg.
Even now, writing this article, I think of Raggedy Ann and the Slippery Slide. I must have read the book when I drank the peppermint flavored mucilage drink, because now all these years later, they are all glued together in my mind. I did a little research, and found that Raggedy Ann was a character created in 1917 by Johnny Gruelle for his daughter Marcella. The first Raggedy Ann book appeared in 1918, and the stories and books continued throughout Marcella's childhood. When Marcella was given a smallpox vaccination at her school without the consent of her parents, she developed smallpox and died at the age of 13. Mr. Gruelle believed the vaccination killed her, and for many years after Marcella's death, Raggedy Ann was a symbol used by the anti-vaccination movement that he started. Raggedy Ann was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2002, and was followed in 2007 by Raggedy Andy.
Now you have a glimpse into the wanderings of my mind. As long as I have the ability to remember, things never get boring around here. I hope you have similar warm memories stored away with priceless information, just like I gathered when I was growing up in my mountains.
All slippery elm photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to Melody and Slyperso1 for the great photography. The photo of the cover of the Raggedy Ann book is my own.