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Spotlight on Marshmallow: Althaea officinalis

Updated: Oct 1, 2022

The name Althaea comes from ancient Greek and means “To heal”

The marshmallow sweets that we’re all so familiar with are a modern invention which replaced the earlier practice of mixing pieces of pulped root with honey and boiling it until it thickened. The resulting mixture, after straining off the root pieces, was used medicinally as a treatment for sore throats and coughs. Children would also chew on the root, which is a bit spongy and mildly sweet.

We can thank the French for developing the recipe into a confectionary product. They whipped the sap with other ingredients into a sort of spongy meringue-type dessert. Much later, cornflour was introduced into the mix, and soon after this the Americans replaced the mallow root with gelatine, and marshmallow sweets became very popular. Marshmallows that are widely available today have no hint of Althaea officinalis in them. They now tend to be made of sugar, water and a gelatine/ egg-white aerator.

The medicinal use of marshmallow, like that of most herbs, dates back millennia. Traditionally it is predominantly the roots which are used, but the leaves also contain active compounds that are of benefit for various conditions. As with most uncultivated plants, bees love the flowers.

Roots are harvested in winter when its mucilage content is highest. There is no need to feel guilty about pulling up a whole plant to get at them. As you can see in the photo there is already new growth starting, and with careful handling this can be transferred to pots or planted directly in the soil, ready for the following year’s growth.

These little sprouts will grow to 1-1.5 metres in height within a short space of time. They prefer damp soil (hence “marsh” mallow), but will grow in regular garden soils too.

The sap, which is found mainly in the roots but also the leaves, is the magical element of marshmallow. It is mucilaginous – which means slimy! But it’s not a sticky slimy, it’s actually a very soft and easily absorbed liquid. Homer referred to it as a “slippery herb”. This mucilage is responsible for many of Marshmallow’s healing properties. It acts by forming a protective coating over mucous membranes and skin. The leaves contain a phytochemical called scopoletin, which is a coumarin – a chemical compound believed to have anti-tumour, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal and anti-bacterial actions.

Tincture is made by harvesting, rinsing and chopping the roots, then packing them into a storage jar with a tight-fitting lid and completely covering them with alcohol. They need to steep for six weeks, and be stirred daily. When ready, they are strained and filtered. The resulting liquid looks a little like whiskey, and smells pleasant, but don't take it neat!

The sap softens the skin, which is why marshmallow root tincture is an ingredient in New Leaf hand sanitiser. Its addition protects the skin from the high alcohol content, which would otherwise be very drying.

It also conditions and softens hair, which is why it’s an ingredient in New Leaf hair conditioner.

As a herbal medicine it is used for a number of ailments. Apart from helping coughs and sore throats it is anti-inflammatory and also treats kidney stones, acid reflux, stomach ulcers, other digestive problems and skin conditions.

I found this recipe for home-made cough medicine online. I haven’t tried it, but I will!

If you fancy making this, you could consider adding some capsicum next time (cayenne pepper). This is a common ingredient in cough medicines. And a few drops of eucalyptus essential oil wouldn't be a bad idea either.

Don't underestimate the healing potential of Marshmallow. It's a punchy little plant! The 17th century herbalist Nicholas Culpepper wrote: "You may remember that not long since there was a raging disease called the bloody flux; the College of Physicians not knowing what to make of it, called it The Plague in the Guts, for their wits were at ne plus ultra about it. My son was taken with the same disease; myself being in the country, was sent for; the only thing I gave him was Mallow bruised and boiled both in milk and drink; in two days it cured him, and I have here to shew my thankfulness to God in communicating it to his creatures, leaving it to posterity." So next time you’re standing round a bonfire toasting a marshmallow, spare a thought for its namesake, and maybe consider planting some Althaea officinalis in your garden or on your balcony in the spring.

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