Thievery has left its mark across 700,000 acres of Kentucky this summer. In a national park composed largely of Appalachian foothills, robbers with a penchant for botany have been stripping bark off of trees in order to resell it on the herbal remedy market. The tree: slippery elm. The reason thieves are tearing its bark: it soothes a sore throat.
A National Park Service spokesman told the Associated Press that a “huge market” is going into herbal medicine, as nearly all plant life has some kind of value in the $23 billion herbal medicine industry. The slippery elm tree — particularly its bark’s gummy residue — is native to North America and grows in the wild across most temperate parts of the continent.
It’s easy to see why thieves might be interested. The inner bark of the slippery elm tree exerts a calming and soothing effect when used as medicine. The main reason for that is the active ingredient in it — “mucilage,” which is the gummy substance inside. Tree-bark thieves are most active in June and July.
In our body, mucilage forms a protective layer along the throat, digestive, and intestinal tracts. Inflamed mucous membranes can be soothed with slippery elm. It has been useful in relieving coughs, sore throat, and other symptoms of a dry upper respiratory tract.
Flourishing just east of the Rocky Mountains, slippery elm grew in popularity in the 1700s and 1800s as a remedy for coughs and colds. Now, the FDA has recognized that this herb is safe and effective for the treatment of sore throat and cough.
Slippery elm is, in fact, used in many commercial throat lozenges, and in particular it is believed to soothe
symptoms and alleviate the respiratory dryness that comes with coughing. The result is that this tree, once used locally, is now used nationally as medicine.
In Kentucky, officials have arrested six suspects who were allegedly involved in poaching slippery elm bark. They are killing the trees, as they leave the wood exposed to the elements, having stripped off all the bark. For every 50 pounds of bark, a dozen or so trees will die. That amount of bark, only if dry, is worth a paltry $150.
Now the tree is on a protection list at the National Center for the Preservation of Medicinal Herbs, which is a nonprofit agency that only exists because of the “how to make a quick buck” culture in which we all live.
It’s not just the slippery elm that is being threatened. Other plants, such as ginseng (used to treat fatigue, stress) and black cohosh (used to treat menopausal symptoms) are being illegally harvested as well. In fact, some National Park officials have taken precautionary steps such as marking the roots of ginseng with dye and affixing tracking devices to them. This is intended to help prevent illegal picking.