Sweet and Herbal

Increasing daylight and warmer daytime temperatures, give us hope that Spring is slowly approaching. But, once the sun sets, that familiar chill fills the air and reminds us it’s still winter. Thoughts of enjoying a warm beverage like hot cocoa topped with marshmallows comes to mind. Only, your store-bought marshmallows probably do not contain any part of the herbal Marshmallow plant. Instead, they are a confection containing corn syrup and gelatin.

The Marshmallow plant often referred to as “Mallow root” or Althaea officinalis, has been used in herbal medicine for centuries. Although the original marshmallow was made from this plant, it differed greatly in taste and appearance. The first marshmallow confections were made in Egypt over 3,000 years ago.

All parts of the Marshmallow plant are edible. Marshmallow is moistening and cooling, with its roots and leaves being very mucilaginous and very valuable medicinally. When mixed with water, the gummy mucilage becomes gel-like. Marshmallow is valued for their demulcent and emollient properties. This smooth gel is used to coat the tissues and system linings of the body, like the digestive, respiratory, and urinary systems. The coating that forms helps to reduce, prevent, or heal inflammation and irritation.

Unlike some herbal plants that are typically used only in Eastern medicine, the Marshmallow plant is used in today’s traditional medicine. Studies are ongoing, and many doctors prescribe the soothing effects of this demulcent. Dry coughs, asthma, dry mouth, acid reflux, ulcers, skin irritations, and wound care are just a few of the ways Marshmallow root is being used.

Available in the form of powder, capsules, teas, and cough syrups, it can be found in most stores. Powdered root, once combined with sweetener and other ingredients to produce a candy lozenge for children’s sore throats, is being sold again. As always, consult your doctor.

The roots of the Mallow provide iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, vitamins A, C, B1, 2, 3, and N5 (pantothenic acid,) iodine, and sodium. You won’t find that kind of nutrition in campfire marshmallows. Don’t forget the medicinal value of this plant’s dried leaves for infusions and teas. Fresh leaves are boiled before eating, because of tiny leaf hairs. The attractive, raw flowers can be used in salads. The nutty-tasting seeds are eaten cooked or raw. Be sure no dangerous sprays or chemicals have been used on any part of the plant before eating.

In the wild, Mallow was originally found growing only in salty soils. I first saw Marshmallow in a salt marsh outside of Boston. Today it grows in zones 3-9, usually where the soil is continually moist. It’s a beautiful perennial, growing 3- 6 feet tall. Unfortunately, the Marshmallow plant doesn’t grow well in California, but it’s truly a plant you should know.

19th. Century marshmallows were made with the whipped sap of the plant. In 1948, the marshmallow was mass-produced in the U.S., using nothing from the plant. Today, Americans buy over 90 million pounds annually and are marshmallows’ biggest consumers!

By Cheryl Balster