26 Sep October’s Plant of the Month: Marshmallow
Our Plant of the Month blog will share science, gardening tips, uses, and (especially) tall tales behind the organic herbs and flowers that we lovingly grow at ifarm.
Marshmallow: Food for the Pharaohs, Medicine for the Masses
Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) is an incredible herb (and edible food, in a pinch) that has been cultivated for thousands of years. We have been processing Marshmallow roots a LOT over the past few weeks: Fall is the time to harvest medicinal roots, when plants are working to store nutrients to last the winter.
The Marshmallow plant takes its name from an affinity for wet, salty marshland. It is a highly medicinal plant that is naturally found across Europe, northern Africa, and North America.
The stories go that the first sugary “marshmallow” was created by the ancient Egyptians as a mixture of honey, flour, nuts, and the sweet sap of the Marshmallow root, which was readily accessible along the Nile delta.
Egyptian nobility loved the sweet, demulcent taste of the refined Marshmallow root and reserved it as nourishment for the pharaoh and an offering for the gods. The story says that it was a crime for any commoner to taste the refined sap of the marshmallow.
It is (perhaps) also possible that few Egyptians (other than the nobility) had the time, tools, or inclination to craft their own confections.
Marshmallow can also be found in the wetter areas of the ifarm garden. We don’t craft confections however, we prepare the root to be used by herbalists.
Deliverance from Dry Coughs
Marshmallow was popular among ancient peoples because of its incredible value as a food (all parts of the Marshmallow plant are edible) and a medicinal herb with many different qualities. The emperor Charlemagne even made a royal decree in the 9th century that all christian monasteries grow this plant to succor the sick and weary (1).
Marshmallow has these values: It is demulcent (lubricating for the internal organs), anti-tussive (suppresses coughs), diuretic (encourages urination), emollient (lubricating for the skin), expectorant (breaks up mucous), vulnerary (supports healing of wounds), and anti-bacterial (2). In short, it is a useful ally to have around.
In order to control dryness and hardness we have to be able to move in water to moisten and soften. There is no better remedy than Marshmallow, the great mucilage and emollient.
-Matthew Wood, 2008
Marshmallow is most commonly used to lubricate and soothe dry, irritating coughs, especially when the leaf is taken as a cold-extracted tea. (4)
Marshmallow is also seeing usage with inflammatory ailments of the digestive or urinary tracts. The root is composed of a significant amount of mucilage which is indigestible for humans. This mucilage is able to slide down the entirety of the digestive tract, coating it with healing flavonoids that reduce inflammation. The mucilage also induces phagocytosis, which is the process by which cells engulf bacteria, dead tissue, or other wastes to remove from the body (5).
We can say from personal experience that the root is incredibly mucilaginous. The process of macerating the roots creates a gelatinous liquid almost immediately!
Preparation: Marshmallow is best used as tablets (or capsules) or in a cold-extraction as the mucilage extracts poorly in alcohol and is destroyed by heat (4).
Always take care when using herbs and (link) read our Terms and Conditions
Cautions: The mucilage can slow drug absorption in the gut (6).
- Stary, F. 1992. The Natural Guide to Medicinal Herbs and Plants. Ed. Dorset Press, NY, USA. 8Foster, S. Herbal Renaissance. Utah: Peregine Smith Books; 1984
- Mills S. The dictionary of modern herbalism: A comprehensive guide to practical herbal therapy. Inner Traditions/Bear & Co, 1985.
- Wood, M. (2008). The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
- Moore M. 1993. Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. Santa Fe. New Mexico: Red Crane Books.
- Kapoor L.D. Handbook of Ayurvedic Medicinal Plants [Book]. – Boca Raton : CRC Press, 1990.
- Wichtl, M. and N.G. Bisset (eds.). 1994. Herbal Drugs and Phytopharmaceuticals. Stuttgart: Medpharm Scientific Publishers.