Hello, fellow plant lovers!
The sun is finally shining, the grass is greener than I’ve ever seen it, and the whole world seems to be rejoicing at the effects of the rains we’ve had this winter. With clear blue skies in the forecast as far as one can see, Spring seems to be making its appearance, as March fast approaches. In California, summertime is our characteristic weather pattern, and it arrives much quicker than nearly anywhere else in the country- that old saying “April showers bring May flowers” seems to be more accurate when replaced with the months of February and March here in the golden state.
Today, I am profiling the pretty, flowering herb Marshmallow! Indigenous to much of Europe, Western Asia and North Africa, marshmallow, or Althea officinalis, was an important herb in traditional European medicine. The plant’s soothing and calming qualities make it an excellent option for treating pretty much anything having to do with irritation (except the interpersonal kind 😉 ).
Marshmallow is also one of the world’s oldest desserts– there are accounts of the ancient Egyptians preserving the sweet-tasting root in honey as a candy, a delicacy set aside only for the gods, rulers and very wealthy. A noble beginning for the staple campfire treat they are today! Our modern-day marshmallow really got started in France in the 1800’s, where a combination of marshmallow root, corn syrup, egg whites, and water was heated and then poured into molds. The fluffy Kraft treat that we know today no longer contains real marshmallow root (it actually contains a bunch of gross stuff), but you can make your own marshmallows in a way true to its origins and name! There are several recipes on the Internet, but I recommend the one I found on Food Crumbles– they explain why you do the steps you do in making these yummy treats, not just how to make them, and I love that!
Whether you’re interested in using this pretty plant for its helpful healing or its delicious taste, Marshmallow is sure to bring delight to your home. Continue reading below to learn what Marshmallow can add to your apothecary!
Marshmallow’s Traditional Uses
Althea officinalis has been used as both food and healing agent for over 2,000 years. Civilizations such as the ancient Romans, Syrians, Egyptians and the Chinese have utilized its healing properties as well as its nutritional value– during times of severe drought and famine, Syrians have used marshmallow as a staple food source, frying it with onions and butter as a meal. Horace, famed Roman lyrical poet at the time of Emperor Augustus, gives us evidence of the Roman’s use of the plant as food in a description of his diet, “Me pascunt olivae, me cichorea levesque malvae” (As for me, olives, endives, and mallows provide sustenance).
The Arab peoples have traditionally used marshmallow leaves as a poultice for reducing inflammation, and in Homer’s “Iliad,” references to marshmallow arise, since at the time the herb was a common treatment for coughs, sore throats and congestion. Greek physician Hippocrates stated that the root of the marshmallow plant highly effective for healing wounds. Additionally, marshmallow was used to prevent burns– in medieval Britain, a person accused of a crime had to on occasion hold a red-hot iron bar, and would only be considered innocent if they suffered no serious burns. In order to bring about this verdict, the accused would sometimes coat their hands with marshmallow salve, as its thick mucilage could feasibly interfere with and protect against the hot metal. Sometimes, I find myself wishing I could live back in the Middle Ages; and then I read stuff like this, and suddenly I’m totally fine with living in 2017.
You can find this lovely plant growing in marshes by the sea, or other well-watered areas– the thick mucilage produced in the stalk and root requires lots of water to make! Marshmallow usually grows to be about 3-4 feet tall, sometime taller in well-established areas. It’s comprised of a single erect stalk with a couple branches growing off it. The leaves are toothed, shortly-petioled (stemmed), cordate, or heart-shaped, and soft and velvety to the touch.
The flowers grow both singularly and in bunches along the stalk and branches, and are very light pink with five petals. The flowers bloom in August and September, and a marshmallow plant in bloom is a signal to harvest them, as this is the time when their roots and stalks contain the most mucilage. Any later, and the stems become woody and dry, and fall down for the winter.
Healing Attributes of Marshmallow
Every part of the marshmallow plant can be consumed safely, and has been for hundreds of years. The young leaves and flowers can be added to salads, and the adult leaves can be used in soups, steamed like kale or sauteed like spinach. Roots can be eaten raw, just make sure to clean and peel them, or cooked and fried– I’d be curious to try to make candies with them and honey, like the Egyptians did!
Medicinally speaking, marshmallow is best taken as an infusion or decoction, with the flower, leaves and roots all being helpful healers. The key actions of marshmallow are the fact it’s a demulcent, emollient and an expectorant. If you choose to take it as a tea, marshmallow is best brewed cold over a period of a day or two in the fridge (thanks Peach Parade!). Peek at the list below for specific uses for marshmallow!
- Chapped, dry or irritated skin- ointment or balm containing marshmallow root locally
- Inflammatory bowel-like issues- six grams daily in capsule, powder, tea or tincture
- Acid indigestion/reflux- tea or tincture of marshmallow
- Sore throat, cough or cold- 1 to 2 tsps taken several time per day
- Other respiratory issues- marshmallow tea or tincture throughout the day
- Anti-frizz hair rinse (contributed by Peach Parade)- chilled marshmallow tea steeped cold for two days, use as a final rinse when in the shower to combat frizz and nourish strands
The dosage guidelines for marshmallow are 5-15 grams daily, or max 100 grams in a week. Always follow the dosage instructions recommended by the manufacturer if you are purchasing the root for internal use, as this is the most potent part of the plant, but for the most part it’s a mild herb. Marshmallow is actually an herb you can use for your cats and dogs, so there’s nothing to fear about toxins and such with this plant! I hope you found this entry helpful and, dare I say, entertaining! I loved getting to know more about this beautiful plant, and I hope you did too.
Til next time friends!
Light and limeflower,