Plant Profile: Althaea officinalis (Marshmallow)
Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) is an understated plant. It’s not renowned for its beauty, fragrance, or romance like the rose. But like many quiet botanical achievers, it’s contributed significantly to cultures around the world for thousands of years. In name it has accompanied many a campfire gathering, and its healing properties are believed to be second to none.
Before marshmallows became the super sweet and gooey confectionary they are today, they were made by Egyptians from marshmallow roots mixed with nuts and honey. It’s likely this concoction was medicinal as well – marshmallow has been used for many years as a herbal remedy for sore throats and coughs.
Marshmallow is one of the original botanical cure-alls, if Nicholas Culpeper’s quote from the ancient philosopher and naturalist Pliny (AD 23 – AD 79) is to be believed -‘Pliny saith, that whosoever takes a spoonful of any of the Mallows, shall that day be free from all diseases that may come unto him,’ he states in Culpeper’s Complete Herbal (1826).
The plant’s primary claim to fame is its mucilage. Great word, huh? Mucilage is a thick, gooey liquid, reportedly effective for relieving inflammation of mucous membranes, especially in the digestive and respiratory tracts. It’s said to soothe and protect the lining of the throat and stomach, making it useful for colds, coughs, irritable bowl syndromes, ulcers, urinary tract problems and general wound healing.
Culpeper, however, was not prepared to limit the benefits of marshmallow to this. ‘The mucilage of the roots, and of linseed and fenugreek put together, is much used in poultices, ointments, and plaisters, to mollify and digest all hard swellings, and the inflammation of them, and to ease pains in any part of the body,’ he wrote, echoing the sentiments of Pliny.
Today marshmallow is seen by many as a kind and gentle healer, soothing the inside and outside of the body with its cooling, protective and hydrating qualities.
Those in the know say marshmallow is a feminine plant, ruled by the element of water.
It can be burnt to cleanse a space, and the oil can be used as a protectant against spells. A bunch of it in the window of your home can help draw a straying partner home. So they say…
ON THE BODY
Marshmallow has long been used in wellbeing products due to its soothing qualities. Australian skincare brand Jurlique has been growing marshmallow at their biodynamic* Adelaide Hills farm for over 30 years. “We use Marshmallow Root Extract in more than 70 of our products to hydrate, soften, and soothe the skin,” says Danielle Williams, Education Specialist ANZ—Jurlique International. In fact, it’s the main active ingredient in our new Activating Water Essence.”
IN THE GARDEN
Marshmallow originated in Europe. It’s a small perennial plant growing to around one metre high with thick downey leaves and mauve flowers. It’s in the same plant family as hibiscus, hollyhock, cotton, okra and cacao – Malvaceae.
Marshmallow has a penchant for marshy areas, hence its common name! It likes moist, well drained soil and won’t tolerate drought or dry conditions. It loves sun and lots of it.
In cooler climates the plant dies down over winter, and shoots fresh new growth in spring. Marshmallow root is harvested in winter on the Jurlique farm as it’s the time of highest concentrations of active compounds in the root.
You can buy seeds to grow in Australia from All Rare Herbs.
IN THE KITCHEN
Marshmallow flowers, leaves and seeds can be added to salads and used in garnishes but the plant isn’t really known for its culinary applications. It was, however, relied on in Middle Eastern countries in times of famine. ‘When boiled first and fried with onions and butter, the roots are said to form a palatable dish, and in times of scarcity consequent upon the failure of the crops, this plant, which fortunately grows there in great abundance, is much collected for food,’ states Mrs. M. Grieve in A Modern Herbal.
MAKE THIS: MARSHMALLOW, LEMON AND TURMERIC TEA
4 cups of water
half a lemon, cut in slices
3 tablespoons of powdered marshmallow root (you can buy from Herb Cottage in Australia)
1 small handful of fresh mint
1 teaspoon of turmeric powder
1 teaspoon of honey (optional)
Boil water, add marshmallow and simmer for 20-30 minutes.
Remove from heat. Add lemon, turmeric, and fresh mint and steep for 15 minutes.
Drink! Don’t go overboard though – have one or two cups a day.
- Certified biodynamic by the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture, Australia. Jurlique’s products and farm are not certified by or affiliated with Demeter® USA or Demeter International.