Marshmallow (Althea officinalis)

No country herb garden would be complete without marshmallow. It is beneficial for so many ailments from stomach upset, constipation, sore throat, bronchial spasms, and even bruises, cuts, and scrapes. It has a wild, rustic look with its maple-like leaves, and rosey looking flowers, tall and swaying gently in the breezes of summer. Painted lady butterflies are attracted to it. Native pollinators cover its blossoms in summer. You’ll want to find a spot on your homestead for this amazing herb.

Marshmallow (Althea officinalis) is a perennial flowering weed of moist, damp places. It’s soft, hairy stock stands 3 to 4 feet high. It has a branched stem. It’s soft, hairy leaves are deeply cut in 3 divisions, similar in shape to a maple leaf. The flowers are born along the upper stalk. They have 5 heart shaped petals, usually white, to bluish pink or mauve. They bloom in late summer. Flowers, leaves, and root are edible.

The root is many branched with none being thicker than a pencil. While the root contains the most mucilage, even the leaves have a high percentage of the it – the sweet, viscous liquid that gives old fashioned marshmallows their light, airy texture. (Learn how to harvest marshmallow root here.)

Use the leaves and flowers as poultices to soothe skin irritations, bruising, and irritation. Make a tea of the leaves and flowers for bronchitis, and cough. The roots contain more than 30% mucilage that is soothing to mucus membranes and the digestive tract. The leaves in early spring, make a mild tasting, and healthful salad.

Growing marshmallow in the garden

Marshmallow is a common flower in cottage gardens due to its beneficial medicinal qualities. Marshmallow is the plainer cousin of Hollyhock, a tall biennial flower in the mallow family. Since marshmallow is a perennial, you’ll want to put plant it where you want it to grow permanently. It grows to 3 or 4 feet tall, if given plenty of water, so plan for its height, to avoid shadowing smaller plants.

Establishing a planting from root divisions or cuttings

Marshmallow grows from root divisions or cuttings. Cuttings root easily in summer, if the ground is kept damp. Divide the root in fall, after the plant dies down, or in the Spring before the succulent growth comes up. Plant marshmallow in your garden, in a damp spot. Plant it in full sun. It is hardy to zone 3 and thrives in cool to cold areas, where other flowers fail.

Stratify the seeds before planting

Marshmallow can also be grown from seed. If you are beginning a new planting of marshmallow from seed, the seeds need to be stratified by exposing them to cold, damp conditions. In mild winter areas you can plant in the fall to get blossoms in the following summer. In harsh winter areas, plant in the early spring, as soon as the ground can be worked. Marshmallow seeds will germinate as the soil warms up. Keep it well weeded and mulched. Water it when you water your garden. If your season is short, expect flowers in the second year.

You can stratify the seeds naturally by planting them in seed trays in the greenhouse in late fall and letting the natural cold and freezing act on the seeds. You can also stratify them by planting them out in the fall, where you want them to grow. Mark the spot so that you don’t accidently weed them out in your spring garden cleanup.

One variety of marshmallow that is specially selected for abundant mucilage is Erfurt Marshmallow (Althea officinalis ‘Erfurter’ ) available from Richter’s Herbs. Erfurter contains up to 10% medicinal mucilage and is the variety grown in Europe for herbal medicine.

If you are buying the seed from a garden store and you want to plant them out in the garden this spring, you’ll need to stratify them in the fridge. Place the seeds in damp sand or peat and put them all together in a zipper sealed bag. Seal it up well and allow the bag to sit undisturbed for 24 hours. This will allow the seeds to swell. Then place the bag in the refrigerator for 4 to 6 weeks. Check the seeds for signs of growth after a month. When you notice germination, remove the seeds from the fridge and plant them in pots in prepared soil.

Keep the soil evenly moist by covering the pots with a plastic dome to keep them from evaporating. Once the plants have grown two sets of true leaves, you can plant them out in their permanent location. Remember to harden them off, if you’ve been growing them in the house, to avoid transplant shock. If you’ve been growing them in an unheated greenhouse, they should be sufficiently acclimatized.

Plant the seedlings 1 foot apart in rows at the back of a perennial bed. Mulch well to discourage weeds and hold in soil moisture. Keep well watered and well weeded the first year to allow them to become established. You can begin harvesting roots in the 2nd fall after a spring planting.

How to harvest marshmallow

The leaves, flowers, and roots are used in herbal medicine. But the harvest window is different, depending on which part of the plant you are using. At any time you can harvest the leaves to use as a poultice. If you are preserving the leaves, or roots for winter, harvest at the optimal time for each plant part.

Harvest the leaves after flowering. Dry them well. Harvest the root in late fall, before the ground freezes. Clean the roots of root fibers and cork. Chop roots into ½ inch pieces and dry immediately.

Marshmallow root contains 25 to 30% mucilage, pectin, and asparagine (like asparagus). The leaves also contain mucilage.

According to David Hoffman in Holistic Herbal:

“The high mucilage content of Marshmallow makes it an excellent demulcent. The root is used primarily for digestive problems, inflammations of the digestive tract and on the skin, whilst the leaf is used for the lungs and urinary system. For bronchitis, respiratory catarrh and irritating coughs consider Marshmallow leaf. It is very soothing in urethritis and urinary gravel. Externally, the root is indicated in varicose veins and ulcers as well as abscesses and boils.” (p. 59)

If you can’t wait for your own Marshmallow to grow, you can buy organic marshmallow root online.

Marshmallow Benefits:

Consider Marshmallow for:

  • Stomach Ache, constipation, or diarrhea
  • Skin problems or acne
  • Colds, sore throat, coughs, bronchitis,
  • Fever
  • Kidney stones, pain, or urinary tract infection
  • Gout or diabetes
  • Arthritis or inflammation

Juliette de Bairacli Levy. The Complete Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable. (Faber and Faber: London) 1952.

Philip Fritchey. Practical Herbalism. (Warsaw, IN: Whitman Publications), 2004.

David Hoffman. The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal. (Dorset: Element Books), 1996.

David Hoffman. Medical Herbalism, the science and practice of herbal medicine. (Rochester: Healing Arts Press) 2003.

Richters Herb and Vegetable Catalogue, www.richters.com

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Tell a child that marshmallows grow in the garden, and they’ll be much more excited about weeding chores. The truth is, marshmallows used to grow in the garden, and that’s where the marshmallow plant (Althaea officinalis) gets its name. The roots of this herb contain mucilage which was originally used to thicken marshmallows, and these days gelatin is used instead.

It’s a shame because those traditional marshmallows were more than just sugar bombs, they were potent herbal medicine for treating all manner of respiratory issues. If a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down, a few herbal marshmallows are even better.

You can still grow your own marshmallow root at home and add it to homemade marshmallows, or you can simply let it add a splash of beauty to your garden. Either way, the bees will thank you, as just like young children, they have a particular fondness for marshmallows…the flower, not the candy.

Marshmallow is an incredibly easy herb to grow, and it’s thrived even under conditions of benign neglect in my garden. I planted it (along with a dozen other herbs) in a flurry of nesting activity right before my daughter was born. Of course with an infant in the house, just about everything else got neglected and few of the seeds grew. The exceptions were marshmallow and valerian, both of which thrived as I ignored them in the seedling trays.

When they were finally thrown into the soil with no preparation they continued to thrive, and 4 years later I have a yard full of both valerian and marshmallow that tend themselves.

The plants themselves are hardy to zone 4, and will readily self sow. That means that once you plant them they’ll come back year after year and continue to expand their patch. They grow in tall elegant flower spikes, each about 4-6 feet tall. Each plant sends up multiple spikes that bloom all along their height.

Growing Marshmallow from Seed

Though my extremely neglected marshmallow seedlings matured to produce thriving perennial plants, they’ll obviously do better with actual care. Don’t skip the cold stratification step, that’s required for germination. This can be done either in the refrigerator or right in the garden if the seeds are planted at the correct time.

Cold Stratifying Marshmallow Seed

Marshmallow seeds require cold stratification for good germination. This means they need cool, moist temperatures to mimic winter conditions. This prevents the seeds from germinating in the fall only to be killed as tiny seedlings over the winter. A bit of cold storage tells the seeds that winter has passed, and it’s time to get to work.

If you’re planning to start marshmallow seeds indoors, the right moist conditions can be achieved either by storing marshmallow seeds on a moist paper towel, or with some moist peat moss, inside a plastic bag in the refrigerator for 3-4 weeks before planting. Keep them just barely moist, and leave the bag cracked open a bit for ventilation.

Marshmallow seeds about to go onto moist paper towels for cold stratification.

You can also just place the seed packet directly int the refrigerator, no prep required. I’ve done it both ways, and I’m not sure there was a noticeable difference in germination rates. The first year I grew these, I just threw the seed packet into the door of my refrigerator when my seed order arrived and took it out for seed starting a few weeks later.

Once the seeds have stratified, start them in moist potting mix alongside your other spring seedlings.

Marshmallow seedlings at just a few weeks old.

Direct Seeding Marshmallow Plants

Marshmallow can also be direct seeded into the garden. In areas with a mild winter, just plant the seeds in the late fall and they’ll germinate the following spring. In areas with a long cold winter, you can also just plant the seeds very early in the spring, as soon as the soil can be worked.

Here in Vermont, there are at least 6 weeks of very cool temperatures in the spring before the frost-free growing season begins in early June, and the seeds can cold stratify right in the cool spring soil.

Growing Marshmallow Plants from Root Divisions

Marshmallow can also be grown by dividing an existing healthy plant. It’s best to divide marshmallow when the plant is dormant, such as in the fall after that plant has died down. Early spring, before the greens sprout also works, but it can be more difficult to locate the plants this time of year.

Simply insert a sharp spade into the plant and slice down through the root mass. Take one portion of the roots for planting elsewhere, and backfill the space with fertile soil.

Flowers on a wild mallow plant growing in my yard. They’re not quite as elegant as the cultivated variety, but they’re just as vigorous and care free.

How to Grow Marshmallow Plants

Whether you’ve started them from seed or root divisions, the care is the same.

Plant marshmallow in a moist spot, ideally with heavy soil. It’s called “marsh” mallow for a reason after all. While it wants continuously moist soil, it doesn’t want to grow underwater or in an actual swamp. Ensure good drainage and avoid standing water.

Plant marshmallow plants about 1 foot apart in a well prepared perennial bed. Mulch heavily in the first year to discourage weeds and hold moisture while the plants are getting established.

So long as you keep weeds back this first year, and the soil stays moist, your marshmallow herbs should get off to a good start. Later in life they’re tall vigorous plants, and they can more easily compete with weeds and other perennials provided the soil stays moist.

In my case, I just stuffed them into a weedy perennial bed with no mulch. Our Vermont summers are always wet, so I didn’t have to water. The only thing that is absolutely required is cold stratification, and simply placing the packet into the refrigerator a few weeks before planting accomplishes that. Once they’re up, the plants are pretty hard to kill.

Marshmallow plants are hardy to zone 3, so perfect for northern gardeners.

A native bee on a wild marshmallow plant growing in my blueberry bed. We leave all these wild plants, and they grow without any care.

Harvesting Marshmallow Root

If you plant to use marshmallow root for medicine, you can begin harvesting in the 2nd or 3rd fall after planting. Use a sharp spade to harvest the roots in the late fall, after the plant has died back but before the ground freezes. It’s possible to harvest without killing the plant, so take care to replant the crown after removing a portion of the root.

Clean the roots thoroughly, and then chop into pieces and dry immediately. The dried roots are the most common medicinal preparation, and can readily be purchased online here if you’re not willing to wait 2-3 years for your home harvested marshmallow root.

In season, the leaves and flowers are also edible greens, and they’re an ingredient in this wild green ravioli as well as this herbal summer punch. They also contain mucilage, but it can pleasantly add to a dish or salad in small amounts.

How to Use Marshmallow Herb

I plan to make actual herbal marshmallows using just marshmallow herb and maple syrup later this summer. The book Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate has detailed instructions for using wild or cultivated marshmallow plants to make fluffy marshmallow treats without gelatin.

I’m hoping to just use my own recipe for herbal marshmallows, but substitute a strong marshmallow root infusion for the gelatin/water mixture. Wish me luck?

Marshmallow treats aside, the marshmallow herb is a big part of our winter wellness cabinet and it’s really helpful for both respiratory and digestive issues. The soothing effects make their way all the way down to the urinary tract, and can be helpful for UTIs.

According to WebMD, Marshmallow is used for:

  • Cough, especially dry coughs
  • Mouth and throat irritation
  • Breast pain caused by breastfeeding (as a poultice applied externally)
  • Skin inflammation, dryness, burns, insect bites, and wounds
  • Digestive issues such as ulcers, constipation, and diarrhea

In my house, it comes out tummy aches in my little ones, and it’s my go-to herb for soothing dry coughs.

Marshmallow Plant Info: Growing A Marshmallow A Plant

Is a marshmallow a plant? In a way, yes. The marshmallow plant is a beautiful flowering plant that actually gives its name to the dessert, not the other way around. Keep reading to learn more about marshmallow plant care and tips for growing marshmallow plants in your garden.

Marshmallow Plant Info

What is a marshmallow plant? Native to Western Europe and North Africa, the marshmallow plant (Althaea officinalis) has had an important place in human culture for millennia. The root was boiled and eaten as a vegetable by the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians. It is mentioned as being eaten in times of famine in the Bible. It has also been used medicinally for just as long. (The name “Althea,” in fact, comes from the Greek “althos,” which

means “healer”).

The root contains a slimy sap that humans aren’t able to digest. When eaten, it passes through the digestive system and leaves behind a soothing coating. Even today the plant is used for a wide variety of medical ailments. It gets its common name, however, from a confection developed in Europe much later.

French chefs discovered that that same sap from the roots could be whipped with sugar and egg whites to create a sweet, moldable treat. And, thus, the ancestor of the modern marshmallow was born. Unfortunately, the marshmallows you buy in the store today are not made from this plant.

Marshmallow Plant Care

If you are growing marshmallow plants at home, you need a relatively wet place to do it. As the name suggests, marshmallows like moist soil.

They grow best in full sun. The plants tend to reach a height of 4 to 5 feet (1.2-1.5 m.) and should not be grown with other sun loving plants, as they will quickly grow up and shade them out.

The plants are very cold hardy, and can survive down to USDA zone 4. Seeds are best sown directly into the ground in late summer or early fall. The seeds can also be planted in the spring, but they will need to be chilled for several weeks first.

Once established, little care is needed, as marshmallow plants are considered fairly low maintenance.

BOTANICAL NAME:

Althaea officinalis

COMMON NAMES

Marsh mallow

FAMILY

Malvaceae

PLANT DESCRIPTION

Generally growing near the sea, by river estuaries and in salt marshes, Marsh mallow is a sprawling plant growing to about 1 metre high. It has large lobed leaves and the leaves and stem are covered in a soft down. It flowers late in summer presenting pale pink flowers which are followed by round flat fruits. The roots are cream coloured.

USES

Young marshmallow leaves can be eaten in salads, the older leaves can be added to soups. The root can be boiled and fried and the seeds are also edible. The root was once a main ingredient in confectionery, but is no longer used for this purpose. It is a soothing, healing herb that has use in treating respiratory problems and digestive problems. The root contains large amounts of mucilage and can be used as a decotion. The leaves can also be made into a tea that can be drunk and also used as a soothing eye bath. Crushed fresh leaves or root can be used as a hot poultice for inflammations, sprains, stings and aching muscles.Asparagus is an edible delicacy and can be eaten raw or cooked.

PLANTING DETAILS

Marshmallow Flower

Marshmallow grows from seed planted in punnets or sowed directly in full sun or part shade. It may also be propogated from cuttings or division of the clump. It likes moist soil and will tolerate salty conditions. Marshmallow dies down in autumn and the stems should be pruned back prior to spring growth. The root should be harvested in autumn

Dried Marshmallow Root

RECIPES

Marshmallow Decotion – Take one spoonful, 3 times a day

Soak 100g/40z dried root overnight in 3 litres of water. Boil until reduced but nearly half and strain.

Marsh mallow

Description

Marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis ) is a perennial plant that grows in salt marshes, damp meadows, and on the banks of tidal rivers and seas. It originated in countries adjoining the Caspian Sea, Black Sea, and in the eastern Mediterranean, and is native to Europe and western Asia. Marsh mallow is found in North America along the eastern seaboard.

The plant stems grow to a height of 3-4 ft (1-1.3 m) and have round, velvety leaves that are 2-3 in (5-7.5 cm) long. Pale pink or white flowers bloom in August or September, and the roots are thick and long. The whole plant is used medicinally. The leaves and flowers are picked when the flowers are blooming. The roots are harvested in the fall, but the plant must be two years old before the root is harvested.

The common name marsh mallow is derived from the environment in which it grows. The Latin name Althaea comes from the Greek word altho, which means to heal or to cure. The family name Malvaceae comes from the Greek word malake, meaning soft. Other names for marsh mallow include mallards, mauls, sweetweed, Schloss tea, and mortification root.

Marsh mallow’s medicinal use dates back 2,000 years. Arabian doctors created a poultice from the leaves to treat inflammation. The father of medicine, Hippocrates, used marsh mallow to remedy bruises and blood loss. Dioscorides wrote about the beneficial properties of marsh mallow, while Horace praised the laxative properties of the leaves and roots. Roman doctors used marsh mallow for toothaches, insect bites, chilblains, and irritated skin. The Chinese, Egyptians, and Romans ate a variety of marsh mallow for food. The French eat the flowers and leaves in salads. Marsh mallow was used to soothe toothaches, insect bites, indigestion , and diarrhea in Europe during medieval times. Teething babies were often given marsh mallow root to provide comfort.

Nineteenth century doctors used the roots of marsh mallow to make a sore throat lozenge for children and adults. They combined the cooked juice of the root with egg whites and sugar and whipped the mixture into a meringue that later hardened into a candy. The marshmallows eaten today as sweet treats were derived from this candy, but no longer contain any herbal properties.

Marsh mallow contains starch, mucilage, pectin, oil, sugar, asparagin, phosphate of lime, glutinous matter, and cellulose. It is rich in calcium, zinc, iron, sodium, iodine, vitamin B complex , and pantothenic acid .

General use

The main therapeutic constituent of marsh mallow is mucilage, a spongy substance of the root that is composed of large sugar molecules. Mucilage’s healing effect stems from its ability to support white blood cells against attacking microorganisms. When liquid is added to mucilage, it acquires a gel-like consistency. This gooey substance coats mucous membranes of the throat, mouth, stomach, and intestinal tract and provides relief from inflammation and pain . It also acts to expel phlegm from the lungs and to relax the bronchial tubes.

These anti-inflammatory and anti-irritant properties make marsh mallow a viable remedy for arthritis and joint pain; upper respiratory ailments such as asthma, emphysema , bronchial infections , coughs, sore throats, and lung congestion; inflamed kidneys and urinary tract disorders; and gastrointestinal disturbances including Crohn’s disease , ulcers, colitis, diarrhea, dysentery, and stomach irritation.

The German Commission E has approved marsh mallow as a beneficial treatment for irritated and inflamed throat, pharyngeal, and gastric mucous membranes, and for dry coughs. Teas made from the root and leaf are licensed in Germany as standard medicinal teas. The root is also used as an ingredient in cough syrup and as a cough suppressant tea.

The British Herbal Compendium supports the use of marsh mallow for gastroenteritis , peptic and duodenal ulcers, colitis, and enteritis. In the United States, marsh mallow is an ingredient in dietary supplements and cough suppressants.

Marsh mallow provides external treatment for cuts, wounds , abscesses, boils, burns , and varicose veins . A gel created by adding water to finely chopped marsh mallow root may be applied to the affected area to reduce inflammation. A poultice containing cayenne and marsh mallow may relieve blood poisoning, gangrene , burns, bruises, and other wounds.

Preparations

Marsh mallow is available in whole bulk, tincture, and capsule forms. It can be taken internally as a tea, tincture, or capsule, or applied externally as an ointment or poultice.

A decoction may be made from the root to relieve congestion, sore throat, or dry cough. To create a decoction, 1-2 tsp of the finely chopped root is added to 1 cup of water and simmered for 10-15 minutes. The liquid is then cooled and strained. A person can drink 1 cup three times daily or as needed. An infusion can be made by steeping the crushed roots in cold water overnight. The infusion is then drunk as needed for symptomatic relief. For relief of an irritated kidney, boiling water is poured over the flowers and leaves. The mixture is covered and steeped for three hours.

To make a poultice, the leaves and/or the powdered or crushed roots are steeped in water. The mixture is then applied externally to areas of inflamed skin, eczema , or dermatitis .

For capsules, 5-6 g may be taken daily or as recommended.

For a tincture, 5 ml may be taken three times daily or as recommended.

For insect bites, the leaves are rubbed on wasp or bee stings to alleviate pain, inflammation, and swelling.

For sore throat, the flowers are boiled in oil and water, cooled, and used as a gargle to relieve sore throat pain.

Precautions

Diabetics should take marsh mallow with caution since high doses may lower blood sugar levels.

Children and infants may take marsh mallow in low doses.

Side effects

There are no known side effects.

Interactions

Marsh mallow may slow the absorption of other drugs when taken simultaneously.

Resources

BOOKS

Lininger, D.C., Skye. The Natural Pharmacy. Virtual Health, LLC, 1998.

Time Life Books. The Alternative Advisor. Time Life Inc., 1997.

Jennifer Wurges

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