photo: Althaea officinalis (marshmallow root). credit: Wikimedia commons
That's right-- marshmallows were once made from a lovely plant of the same name (and still are, if you do it yourself). It's hard to believe that a species of s'more and fluffernutter sandwich fame could be a medicinal ally. However, marshmallow's genus name, Althaea, derives from the Latin and Greek words for cure or heal. Its species name officinalis indicates its wide recognition and use as medicine.
Marshmallow is a European member of the mallow family. Other mallows include hollyhock, okra, hibiscus, and a number of wild edibles-- like this one, common to western NY. Mallows are known for their mucilage—a glorified word for slime. Mucilage helps to sooth dry and inflamed tissue. Anyone who has eaten okra or applied aloe to a sunburn is familiar with this gooey, moistening property. The root of marshmallow is highest in mucilage, though the leaves and flowers are also used.
Marshmallow root tea has been an important companion of mine this winter. When the air gets dry, I am more likely to have dry congestion, sore throats, and nose bleeds. When I noticed a sore throat coming on several weeks ago, I began drinking 1-2 cups of marshmallow tea a day. The sore throat went away quickly without progressing to an infection. Clinical Herbalist Thomas Easley, director of my clinical herbalism program at the Eclectic School of Herbal Medicine, estimates that around one-third of upper respiratory infections could be prevented by keeping respiratory tissue moist and healthy, using a humidifier. Marshmallow root can help towards this end as well.
Marshmallow is also used to moisten and sooth the gastrointestinal mucosa and urinary tract. According to David Hoffman’s Medical Herbalism, “All inflammatory disorders of the gastrointestinal tract will benefit from the application of marshmallow root, including inflammations of the mouth, gastritis, peptic ulceration, and colitis.” Of course, the root of the problem must be addressed (no pun intended!). For example, many individuals experience GI issues and inflammation due to food sensitivities.
What is mucilage, exactly? Like the gut-feeding prebiotic inulin, mucilage is composed of complex polysaccharides, or sugars. These sugars make the root mildly sweet, and also nourish our gut flora.
Marshmallow as Food
Many plants in the mallow family (Malvaceae) have been used as food around the world. I enjoy nibbling on the mild-flavored leaves and flowers; they make a nice addition to salads, and a fine tea.
To the Romans, a dish of marshmallow root was a delicacy. The Roman poet Horace wrote in Odes, "As for me, olives, endives, and smooth mallows provide sustenance." In Syria, a dish of marshmallow root and onions has helped those of lesser means to subsist.
As far as sweets go, the Egyptians created a marshmallow root candy that was sweetened with honey; it was used to soothe sore throats. The French created pâte de guimauve, which is closer to our modern-day marshmallow. They added an eggwhite meringue, and often flavor it with rose water. Today, commercial marshmallows sold in the US are no longer made with marshmallow root.
Cultivation and Harvest
Marshmallow makes a fine garden perennial with its showy white flowers. I have grown it successfully from seed, and cuttings are a viable option as well. As one might surmise by the marsh in its name, marshmallow prefers consistently moist soil, and can take some shade. I recommend this plant for soggier areas that aren't ideal for plants requiring "well-drained soil."
Leaves can be harvested for food and tea anytime, though I prefer them in spring and early-mid summer. Flowers form in mid-late summer, and can be eaten fresh. Roots can be dug in the fall or spring. Unlike many herbs, marshmallow is susceptible to pest damage. My marshmallow leaves were laced with leaf-miner tracks this year. However, a little pest pressure will probably not significantly impact root growth.
Though you may see alcohol extracts (tinctures) of marshmallow in the store, water-based extracts (teas) do a far better job of extracting mucilage. This is the best choice particularly for GI issues; mucilage making physical contact with the upper GI tract is helpful for healing.
Precautions? Some sources recommend taking meds a couple hours before or after marshmallow tea, since mucilage could theoretically impede drug absorption. The most experienced clinical herbalists I've talked to don't believe this is a problem.
Grieve, M. "Mallows." www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/m/mallow07.html
Easley, Thomas. Eclectic School of Herbal Medicine class material.
Elpel, Thomas. Botany in a Day. 6th edition. 2013.
M Didea. https://www.mdidea.com/products/new/new03707.html
I had a great time discussing marshmallow root and more on the WNY Peace Center's Talking Peace radio show on 91.3 FM. Thanks to Vicki Ross, Jack Kanack, and Louis for a great conversation! Visit the Sweet Flag Herbs Homepage to listen to clips from this interview.