About This Plant
Marshmallow is an herbaceous perennial native to Europe, Western Asia, and Northern Africa. Its native habitat is in salt marshes, damp meadows, by the sides of ditches, by the sea, and on the banks of tidal rivers. It grows from three to five feet high on stems which die down in the Autumn. Stems are simple, putting out only a few lateral branches. Leaves are soft and velvety on both sides due to a dense covering of stellar hairs, and are irregularly serrated. Flowers form clusters at leaf axils or panicles, shaped like those of the common Mallow, but are smaller and of a pale color. They bloom during July, August, and September–the tall elegant spikes making for an elegant show while in bloom. Around September, flowers fade, followed by a flat, round fruit, commonly called “cheeses”. Roots are thick, long, and tapering, like a carrot. They are tough and pliant, whitish-yellow on the outside and white and fibrous within. The blooms are loved by pollinators.
The whole plant, as all in the Malvaceae family, abounds with a mild mucilage which is emollient to a much greater degree than the common Mallow. The mucilage is most abundant in the root. It has a long history of use, going back at least 2,000 years. Most herbalists use the root for medicine today, but the leaves and flowers are also very viable. The genus name, Althaea, is from the Greek, altho, meaning “to cure” in relation to its healing properties. The order name, Malvaceae, is from the Greek malake, meaning “soft”, referring to the special qualities of the Mallows to soften and heal.
Most of the Mallows have been used as food at some point in history. The Romans made a dish of Marshmallow as one of their delicacies. Virgil tells of the fondness of goats for the foliage of the Mallow. It was commonly cultivated in gardens because of its usefulness as a medicine. Pliny said, “Whosoever shall take a spoonful of the Mallows shall that day be free from all diseases that may come to him.” It has been known primarily as a demulcent that is specific to the mucous membrane tissues.
And yes, there is a connection to our modern-day marshmallows. The plant, Marshmallow, was used to make one of the oldest desserts known to man, with accounts of ancient Egyptians making candies of Marshmallow root and honey that were reserved for the gods and royalty. The first confection which resembled our current-day marshmallows were made in France from about 1850-1900. Marshmallow root is no longer used in their creation, however.
Seeds are best sown directly in late Summer or early Fall. Seeds can be planted in the Spring, but need to be chilled for several weeks prior. When direct sowing seeds, plant them in groups of five or six seeds, 18-24 inches apart. Lightly cover them with soil and keep moist until they germinate, which is usually in 3-4 weeks. Cuttings also do well, as do offsets of the root, carefully divided in Autumn.
Marshmallow starts can be spaced 18-24 inches apart.
Marshmallow requires a relatively wet habitat, as the name suggests. It will grow in dry areas, but won’t thrive. Standing water may be too much for them. It can be cultivated on unused ground in damp areas near ditches and streams. It grows best in full sun. If it is placed somewhere with less sun, ensuring it gets morning sun will allow the flowers to open. As it can easily reach 4-5 feet in height, take care to not plant it with other sun-loving plants as it will quickly grow up and shade them out. Marshmallow is very cold hardy and can survive down to USDA zone 4. It forms clumps with a limited spread and readily reseeds itself though it is not terribly invasive. Once established it is generally easy to care for.
Leaves can be picked in August, when the flowers are just coming into bloom, on into early Fall. Roots are harvested in the Fall from second- or third-year plants. When harvesting roots, chop then while still fresh before drying. The mucilage content in the root varies greatly and is generally highest in the Fall and Winter and lowest in Spring and Summer. Both leaves and roots can be dried for later use.
To harvest seeds, simply wait until the flowers form a dry ring of seeds that readily separates in your hand. Seeds can be stored in a cool, dry place for later planting, or simply toss them where you would like them to grow.
- Good in wet garden beds or stream banks
- Dried root used as a toothbrush or chewed by teething children
- Root can be made into a glue, by boiling it in water until a thick syrup forms
- The dried and powdered root has been used as a binder when making pills for medicinal use
Most of the Mallows have been used as a food at some point in history. Mallow was treated as a vegetable among the Romans; a particular Marshmallow dish was considered one of their delicacies. The Chinese and the Egyptians were known to eat Mallow. A root extract (halawa) is sometimes used as a flavoring in the making of the Middle Eastern snack, halva.
The root has a taste similar to parsnip and can be boiled first then fried with onions and butter. Young leaves and flowers are tasty in salads or steamed like kale or collard greens. Flowers can be fried for a special treat.
Slippery, slimy, gooey–these are Marshmallow’s beloved attributes that make it so beneficial when it comes to medicinal uses. Roots, leaves, and flowers all contain abundant mucilage.
Its demulcent and emollient properties make it useful in inflammation and irritation of the alimentary canal, as well as the urinary and respiratory organs. It is used for ulcers, urinary tract infections, and dry coughs. It can also be used externally for healing wounds and burns. One of its historic names was Mortification Root because of its claimed ability to prevent gangrene. In Chinese Medicine, Marshmallow root is considered a yin tonic. It can be used for signs of deficient heat such as hot flashes, five palm heat, and night sweats. It is both cooling and moistening.
Marshmallow can be drunk as a tea, used externally as a wash, made into a syrup or lozenges, or used as a powder infused into water, honey, or ghee. All parts of the plant can be infused into an oil for use as a salve or ointment. From a chemical constituent perspective, Marshmallow root is best used as a cold infusion as its mucilaginous polysaccharides become thick and viscous when soaked in water. When heated during simmering, you will also extract the starches, which is fine, but it will be less demulcent. Alcohol over 20% will break down the polysaccharides.
Marshmallow root is considered a protective and cleansing herb and can be added to incense blends. It was often traditionally used in departing rituals to honour the dead to help ensure a “smooth” and peaceful transition.
The large family of Mallows are most abundant in the tropical region and gradually decrease in number as you head toward the poles. A thousand species have been found, all of which contain mucilage, and all of which are considered devoid of “unwholesome properties”. Marshmallow itself is native to western Europe, northern Africa where it grows in salt marshes, damp meadow, by the sides of ditches, by the sea and on banks of tidal rivers.
Althaea officinalis (or common marshmallow) is a perennial indigenous to Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa. This plant is used medicinally and as an ornamental piece. A confection made from the root since ancient Egyptian time evolved into today’s marshmallow treat.
Native Range: Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa
Growing Zones: 3-10
Mature Height: 4-7 feet
Mature Width: 15-18 inches
Sowing: Start indoors in pots 4-6 weeks before the last frost, or direct sow in Fall.
Sow depth: ¼ in
Days to Germinate: 14-21 @ 55-65F
Special Maintenance: Germination is enhanced by moist chilling at 38 degrees for 2 months.
Sunlight: Full sun, Part Sun
Soil Type: Average
Drought Tolerance: Poor
Growth Rate: Moderate
Leaf Description: Fuzzy, soft
Bloom Time: Summer, June-August
Bloom Description: Pale pink-white flowers
Harvest: Leaf, Flower, Flowering Tops, Root, Whole Plant
Harvest Time: Summer-Fall, June-October
Special Properties: Bees, Butterflies, Pollinators, Deer resistant