Plant Profile: Marshmallow
Root (primarily), leaf and flower
Mortification root, marsh mallow
Marshmallow is a welcome resident in my New Jersey coast garden. As a perennial, it returns every spring adding beauty without fuss. I was surprised the first year I grew marshmallow. I’m not sure what I expected, but shifting from the fluffy white sugary cubes used for s’mores and in hot chocolate to this tall plant was a mind stretching experience. It amazed me as I watched it grow to approximately 4 feet stalks of broad, thick, 3-inch leaves with pyramid clusters of pink flowers toward the top. There were some remnant similarities to the candy concept, though. The experience of touching velvety soft olive colored leaves and stems brought that comfort feeling. The pastel pink flowers are a true form of sweetness. They are small, delicate and just the faintest shade of pink petals with lavender jewel stamen clusters inside, good enough to eat. For such a strong sturdy looking plant, I was surprised when I attempted to dig up some of its root and thought I had the wrong part. The long, slim, white taproot grows deep into the ground making it a chore to dig up. Marshmallow grows best in full sunny spots where the soil stays damp, especially in coastal eastern North America. It overwinters without a problem.
Although I would have a large supply if I was adept at harvesting my own roots, as I am not I still buy marshmallow root. It is convenient to purchase already powdered and unlike many powders, this stores well as long as in a dry and dark place. Mountain Rose Herbs sells dried marshmallow root and marshmallow root powder in 4oz and 1 pound packages. They also sell it in capsule form. To plant in your garden, a packet of 100 seeds can be purchased from Strictly Medicinals, my favorite place to purchase organic herb seeds.
Two of the standout mallow family traits are sweet and soothing. Marsh mallow’s distinctive personality is as an herb that moistens dry conditions and cools hot. The two terms that describe this action are demulcent and emollient. Marshmallow root impacts mucous membranes inside our bodies as a demulcent. A demulcent is protection for sensitive mucous membranes like in the gastrointestinal tract, lungs, and urinary tract. Marshmallow root can trigger the formation of a soothing coating that provides moisture and relieves inflammations like ulcers or sore throats or interstitial cystitis. As an emollient, marshmallow softens and comforts externally, on skin for example, like a moisturizer. The high percentage of mucilage in marsh mallow plants is the constituent behind the scenes. Mucilage from plants is a combination of complex carbohydrates called polysaccharides and proteins that have the property of holding onto water to become gummy, gluey, slimy, or gelatinous. Honey and syrup are demulcents. Medicinally, think cold and cough medicine. In the plant world, marshmallow’s gummy nature signifies soothing substance. As a food, it resembles okra, another mallow family member. Some people shy away from the texture of okra thinking it slimy, but because of it these plants add a thickening, silky texture. What’s a gumbo without okra? Unlike the corn syrup sweetened commercially made marshmallows, there is nutrition in the plant. Antioxidant flavonoids, beta-carotene, B-vitamins, calcium, and phytonutrients like betaine. There are no known safety concerns with marshmallow.
The sweet that may come to mind with thoughts of marshmallow comes from sugar, not the gelatinous marshmallow root for which it is named. Marshmallow root, unlike many herbs, has a rather neutral, bland flavor. This proves a big plus because pleasant tasting additions are easily mixed into the tea or syrup. While the taste is mild, the mucilaginous mouth feel, translation gooey, may be a problem.
Most herbs have either a strong, earthlike smell or an evocative spice scent. Marshmallow measures extremely slight in the aroma category. Both the fresh plant and the dried root have a plain, rather non-descriptive perfume if you can even call it that.
The name we associate with smore’s derives from a plant that grows in marshes and belongs to the mallow family. From a Latin plant name perspective there are clues that it is much more than a candy. Marshmallow’s genus name, Althea derives from the Greek, altho which means to heal. It’s plant family name, Malvaceae, comes from the word malakos, which means soft. There are ancient Egyptian records that tell of cakes made from marshmallow sap, honey and nuts used as gifts to Pharaohs and during worship. French sweet shop bakers began to whip the sweetened marshmallow root extraction to create a meringue like confection similar to modern day marshmallows now made with gelatin to form their shape and texture.
Culinary and Cooking
Marshmallows that we buy in supermarkets are not made with marshmallow root. Quite different from today’s version, the original confection was, though. Some sources say the first marshmallows were made by ancient Egyptians, others attribute the creation to French culinary creativity. In the 1800’s before pharmaceutical production, when plants were the only medicines, doctors used marshmallows made from marshmallow root as a children’s medicine for sore throats and coughs. The leaves are also edible, although not commonly used and I have never tried them. They aren’t eaten as raw greens because of their hairy nature, but when cooked the flavor is described as mild with a soft, gooey texture similar to okra. Dried marshmallow root can be added to soups and stews for a thickening effect that makes for a rich and silky smooth result, again similar to it’s relative, okra. Using marshmallow root to make marshmallows is a bit time consuming but delicious and feels much better to eat than the corn syrup sweetened processed ones. Begin with a cold infusion then beat with sugar or honey and egg whites or gelatin to create a white chiffon fluff. True herbal kitchen alchemy.
Beneficial Qualities and Traditional Uses
With its high amount of mucilage (about one-third gooey and gelatinous) marshmallow seems to have the ability to increase the body’s natural potential for soothing, moistening, and softening. This combined with anti-inflammatory action make it a valuable remedy for sore throats, stomachaches, coughs and any type of dryness but marshmallow especially targets urinary irritations. Energetically marshmallow is useful for hot, dry, and hard conditions like sores or ulcers. Marshmallow root is not generally curative, but instead more a palliative remedy, taking away discomfort not cause. It’s more far-reaching in combination with other herbs, antimicrobials for example. Marshmallow’s diuretic action contributes to and supports its special relationship to the kidneys and bladder and is especially soothing here. It also can act as a bulk laxative similar to the way fiber helps elimination. The flowers, generally used less in traditional medicine preparations, can be made into flower essences providing softening this time for the heart and spirit, especially when troubled by emotions of intolerance and inflexibility. When the slimy mucous-like texture of marshmallow root is mixed with water, it becomes a direct topical application as a thicker poultice paste or compress soak. A cool compress of marshmallow tea is especially soothing for sore and swollen eyes or sore nipples for breastfeeding moms. The paste can be applied to skin ulcers, burns, or sores. Marshmallow root is best avoided in cool and damp energetic conditions, the opposite of hot and dry. For colds and flus if symptoms are painful, dry throat and dry hacking cough marshmallow root is perfect, but not if there is a lot of clear nose running or coughing up mucous. It’s important to take other medications at least 2-3 hours before or after marshmallow so it does not interfere with their absorption.
Combine 1 teaspoon of dried marshmallow root with 8 ounces of warm water (not hot). Steep for 1 hour until mixture looks slimy and mucilaginous. Squeeze the mucilage from the marshmallow root into the tea. Alternately, prepare as a cold infusion by combining marshmallow root and water and allow to sit overnight at room temperature, then push hard through a strainer.
In a small saucepan, combine 2 cups water with 2 teaspoons dried marshmallow root. Bring to gentle boil and simmer for 20 minutes, covered. Remove from heat and while still warm, strain liquid and measure. Return marshmallow tea to saucepan and combine with 1 cup of sugar or honey and gently heat to dissolve. At this point, mixture may be getting thick, additional water can be added as needed. Add flavoring if desired with ¼ cup orange or lemon juice. This makes an excellent cough syrup.
Dried marshmallow root can be powdered in a coffee grinder, then mixed with water as a tea, put into capsules, or made into a thick paste for topical use. If taking marshmallow root as a capsule it is important to drink at least 6-8 ounces of warm water right after. Powdered marshmallow root can also be mixed with equal parts cornstarch and used for skin irritations such as diaper rash.
The traditional recipe for an alcohol extraction of marshmallow root is 1 part marshmallow to 5 parts diluted alcohol. Water is used to dilute the alcohol to approximately 25% alcohol. Strain after 4-6 weeks storage.
Brill S: Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers; pp75-77.
From amazing Herbalist Jim McDonald http://www.herbcraft.org/properties.html