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Marsh-mallow is a perennial species indigenous to Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa, which is used in herbalism and as an ornamental plant. Known throughout the ancient Egyptian, Arab, Greek, and Roman cultures, this herb has been used continually for at least 2000 years. In traditional folk practices it was given to soothe and moisten mucous membranes of the respiratory, digestive, and urinary tracts, and also as an external poultice. A confection made from the root since ancient Egyptian times evolved into today’s marshmallow treat, but most modern marshmallow treats no longer contain any marsh-mallow root.
Marshmallow is in the mucilage containing Malvaceae family. It is an herbaceous perennial and grows to a height of 2-5 feet with soft, velvety, and irregularly serrated leaves. Its flowers which form clusters at leaf axils or panicles, and are similar to, yet smaller than, other flowers in the related Malva genus. This plant grows in salt marshes, by the sea, along riverbanks, and other equally damp areas, hence its common name ‘Marsh-mallow.’ The name of the of genus Malva, and of the Malvaceae at large, is derived from the Latin ‘mollis’, or the Greek ‘malake’ meaning soft, most likely related its softening and beneficial qualities. A. rosea (garden variety hollyhock) is very similar to marshmallow and may be used interchangeably, yet its roots are considered an adulterant to marshmallow root in commerce. A variety of other Malva species have high mucilage content and are thus beneficial to some degree as well. Marshmallow is native to northern Africa, western and central Asia, the Caucasus, China, and in much of Europe from Denmark and the UK south to the Mediterranean. It is naturalized in the U.S, Europe, and Australia in ‘marshy’ areas.
Originally grown in monasteries and country gardens in medieval times, this popular herb is now cultivated for commerce in Germany, Hungary, Croatia, Italy, France, and Bulgaria. The mucilage content in the root varies greatly and is generally highest in fall and winter and is therefore best to harvest during these times.
Wild marshmallow is considered a threatened plant in Germany and other parts of Europe. Due to its scarcity, there are restrictions on the importation and exportation of wildcrafted plants.
Mallows are considered edible and have been used as a food source for thousands of years. The Romans, and even the Egyptians far before their time, considered a dish containing mallow a dish of delicacy; in Asia and the Middle East, Mallow was also boiled and fried with onions and butter in times of famine or crop failure.
Marsh-mallow was an important herb in the Ayurvedic and Unani healing tradition. In Ayurveda, the root was used to reduce excess vata (dry constitutional type) and increase kapha (wet constitutional type) and was considered to be energetically cold, sweet tasting, and moistening.
The leaves, flowers and the root of A. officinalis (marshmallow) have been used in traditional herbal medicine. This use is reflected in the name of the genus, which comes from the Greek ἄλθειν (althein), meaning “to heal.”
Marshmallow was traditionally used as relief for irritation of mucous membranes, including use as a gargle for mouth and throat ulcers and gastric ulcers. In Russia, the root syrup is sold without a prescription by pharmacies, with intent to treat minor respiratory ailments. The flowers and young leaves can be eaten, and are often added to salads or are boiled and fried; the plant’s flavor could be described as ‘sweet, energetically cooling, and moistening. Dried leaf can be made into a tea or macerated in oil for external use.
According to naturopath John Lust, “Althea’s particular excellence is in soothing irritated tissues.” He further praises the tea of leaf and flower as an superb gargle, and a cold infusion of the root to soothe the throat. The roots contain a greater amount of mucilage than leaves and thus each lends itself to slightly different preparations and uses. The leaves are diuretic and expectorant, and are used to relieve lung dryness and to soothe the urinary tract. Various herbalists have differing ideas regarding the best use of the root and plant. According to the late Michael Moore, the leaves of the similar plant A. rosea, are best topically as a poultice, and the root, for urethral stimulation. David Hoffman suggests the root to support digestion and for topical applications, and the leaf for supporting the lungs and urinary system. According to herbalists Paul Bergner and Simon Mills, marshmallow stimulates a “vital reflex” which instructs the body to moisten the mucous membranes.
Dry Marsh-mallow products should be diluted with at least 250mL (8 oz) of liquid. Orally administered drugs should be taken 1 hour before use or several hours after, as marshmallow may slow the absorption. It’s that you consult with a qualified healthcare practitioner before using herbal products, particularly if you are pregnant, nursing, or on any medications.