Growing Slippery Elm
It's summer!!! By definition, gardens should be planted by now, unless you are like me and have bitten off a lot this year so are behind! We got 300 feet worth of hugelkultur beds planted with Sheep sorrel..in the meantime I planted a lot of tomatos that are still patiently awaiting life in the field.. but I digress. This post is about our friend Slippery elm (Ulmus rubra).
I recommend Richo Chech’s book Growing At-Risk Medicinal Herbs, as well as his other medicinal herb books. If you haven’t visited his website Horizon Herbs, it is a veritable candy store of cool medicinal herb seeds.
Slippery elm likes sufficient water and will grow along stream banks or upslope from that – actually it is pretty adaptable - but its roots don’t like being flooded too much. I planted three out at the Place of Gathering and they are a little more yellow than I think they should be, water is nearby and I hope I did not get too close and that the water table is not too shallow. Time will tell! The two at my house are very happy living in full sun in the yard, and with water enough - but not too much!
The ideal soil for planting out is described as deep, rich well-drained bottom land soil or limestone soil with a pH of 6.5 to 7, and it likes a leaf mulch. Its range ends sharply at the Montana/Dakota border and goes straight south along that line, includes TX but not west of there. But if it wasn’t for the Rocky Mountains, it would probably be out west naturally by now, it certainly has ways of adapting to a shorter growing season, and it is quite hardy to cold.
Another plus is it can handle both full sun or partial shade. When it is growing in a forest, it will shoot up tall so it can get the sun, but it will branch out more in the open if it is un-crowded. Sounds like it does best on its own, with lots of light, keep the weeds and grass down around it for the first couple years till it has gotten established, and if it looks like it needs a boost, you can fertilize it with compost or rotted manure. Companion species number more than 60, and include box elder and maple, which we have here in MT. Flowering dogwoods and Virginia creeper are a few of the smaller species found with it. It provides great shelter and shade for the understory plants.
Slippery elms will get up to 50 – 60 feet tall, and Richo tells of one that is over six feet around and is probably 200 years old, in Maryland!
They bud in the fall, just before they drop their leaves for the winter. This is when the ideal time to transplant is, after they have dropped their leaves, or alternately, first thing in the spring. You can supplement the soil with added compost and lime. Richo says to space them 20’ apart, or more if you are worried about Dutch Elm disease. There is a lot more info on Slippery elm in this book, as well as in Planting the Future, edited by Rosemary Gladstar and Pamela Hirsch.
Slippery elm held out for longer in resisting Dutch Elm disease than its cousin the American elm, perhaps because its wood is harder and stronger, but it is susceptible too. The United Plant Savers has listed it on their at-risk list, and they encourage cultivation, so kudos to all who are helping bring it back, one tree up to uPs’s planting of 500, ‘it’s all good’!
Click here for a short (1 ½ min.) podcast from Flora Delaterre, the Plant Detective, about Slippery elm.
Summer is here! Enjoy!
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