Sunday, October 3, 2010

Marshmallow Herb: Our slimy and sweet medicine

Botanical name: Althaea officinalis
Family: Malvaceae
Parts used: flowers, leaves, roots
Energetics: Cooling, moistening, sweet
Properties: Demulcent, emollient, expectorant, vulnerary, immunostimulant, diuretic, nutritive, yin tonic

Whosoever shall take a spoonful of the Mallows shall that day be free from all diseases that may come to him.

I love single herbs that seemingly do everything.

Their complexity could inspire a lifetime of devotion to learning the intricate ways they could be used for food and medicine, as well as the ways they support their habitat and the gifts they bring the earth. Single herbs that can be used in a variety of ways are called "polycrest herbs."And marshmallow herb is certainly a polycrest. 

Marshmallow is known primarily as a demulcent that is specific to the mucous membrane tissues. Because of its thick and slimy brew you can easily imagine that it is used to soothe and coat irritated tissues. Mouth ulcers, sore throats, peptic ulcers, and inflamed intestines all get relief from this gooey brew. 

Marshmallow herb works in complex ways. It can even be used as a lubricating demulcent for the lungs and for the urinary tract, even though it never comes in direct contact with these surfaces. Herbalist jim mcdonald explains: 

Though it makes sense that demulcents coat tissues, the physical mucilage is actually very poorly absorbed by the body, and certainly isn’t traveling through the blood to the kidneys. Rather, the ingestion of mucilage seems to promote a systemic moistening of tissues throughout the body, with some demulcents being more specific to particular organ systems.
jim mcdonald

According to a survey published by Paul Bergner, marshmallow is one of the top 20 herbs used by herbalists in the US. 

Urinary problems...
It frequently gets used for urinary problems such as cystitis, kidney stones, and UTIs. Besides being a demulcent specific to the urinary tract it is also a diuretic, which can be of further aide in many urinary problems. 

Marshmallow is almost always included in protocols for inflammatory problems in the digestive tract such as ulcers, colitis, and constipation. Besides being able to soothe inflammation, marshmallow root is also a vulnerary, healing any wounds within the digestive tract. 

Cold and flu season....
Marshmallow is a wonderful plant for the cold and flu season. It can soothe an inflamed and sore throat. It stimulates phagocytosis, an important part of the immune system and it’s even used to moisten the lungs in the cases of dry hot conditions, such as hot coughs with little to no expectoration. Recent scientific research has shown it to be a powerful anti-tussive herb as well. 

But don’t let this little herbal wonder fool you. Its propensity to heal goes far beyond the common uses of present times. 

Historical use...
Like many of the herbs still in use today, marshmallow has a long history of use, going back at least 2,000 years, though most probably even more than this. Most herbalists use the root for medicine today, but the leaves and flowers are also very viable.

The genus name for marshmallow is derived from the Greek word altho, which means to cure. This gives us a great indication of how highly regarded this plant was in ancient times. 

Herbalist Nicholas Culpeper relates this story about a mallow’s ability to heal. 

You may remember that not long since there was a raging disease called the bloody flux ; the College of Physicians not knowing what to make of it, called it The Plague in the Guts, for their wits were at ne plus ultra about it. My son was taken with the same disease ; myself being in the country, was sent for ; the only thing I gave him was Mallow bruised and boiled both in milk and drink ; in two days it cured him, and I have here to shew my thankfulness to God in communicating it to his creatures, leaving it to posterity."

Marshmallow is an amazing topical treatment for wounds and burns. In the past it was called mortification root because of its ability to prevent gangrene. 

Externally, marshmallow root is very useful in the form of poultice, to discuss painful, inflammatory tumors, and swellings of every kind, whether the consequence of wounds, bruises, burns, scalds, or poisons; and has, when thus applied, had a happy effect in preventing the occurrence of gangrene. The infusion or decoction may be freely administered. 
King’s American Dispensary

Besides the roots, the leaves are also used as a fomentation to soothe rashes and other irritations of the skin. 

Marshmallow and other members of the Malvaceae family were historically eaten as foods. The roots of the marshmallow are especially high in nutrients, and the young leaves and flowers are quite tasty in salads. 

Check out my recipe for marshmallows made from marshmallow root here! 

Marshmallow root can be used similarly to slippery elm for people who are weak and unable to eat many foods. 

In pulmonary consumption and other wasting diseases it is one of the finest strengthening medicines to which employment can be given; possessing so much nutriment that it may with propriety, with the addition of milk, be taken as a food agreeing with and remaining in the stomach when that organ has become intolerant of other foods.
Hatfield Botanic Pharmacopoeia

In Traditional 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. 

Botanically speaking...
Marshmallow is in the Malvaceae family. This is derived from the Greek word, malake, which means soft. Almost all members of this family are used in similar ways to marshmallow. 

Members of the Malvacaeae family that you might be familiar with include: 

Hibiscus Hibiscus militaris
Hollyhock Althea rosea
Common Mallow Malva neglecta
Globemallow Sphaeralcea acerifolia
Cotton Gossypium herbaceum

Malva neglecta, or common mallow, can be used very similarly to marshmallow and it grows virtually all over the US. 

Botanical Description
Marshmallow originally comes to us from central Asia but has spread out from there. It natively grows in salt marshes and is an easy herb to grow in your garden.

Marshmallow grows to about 3-5 feet in height. It’s a perennial herbaceous plant, meaning that it dies back in the fall and reappears in the spring. 

Marshmallow flowers are pinkish to white and have five separate petals and many stamens. The stamens form a column around the pistil, giving it a distinct shape. 

The leaves are shaped like hearts with irregular serrations. 

Leaves are covered with small soft hairs on both sides of the leaves.

The roots are a pale yellow color and are tapered, long, and thick. 

The leaves and flowers can be harvested in the late summer to early fall. You can usually get two clippings from the plant. After cutting the aerial portions I tie it up in bunches and hang them from the rafters to dry. Once dry, I separate the leaves and flowers from the woody stalk. 

The roots are harvested in the fall from the second or third year plants. They are chopped while still fresh and then dried. 

Making medicine with marshmallow root...
From a chemical constituents perspective, marshmallow root is best used as a cold infusion. 

To see a step by step article on making cold infusions with marshmallow check out the free HerbMentor Newsletter.  

Marshmallow roots are high in polysaccharides and starches. By using a cold infusion you extract mainly the mucilaginous polysaccharides. If you simmer the root you also extract the starches in the plant (which is okay; the cold infusion is considered to be a purer extract of the mucilage.)

Alcohol above 20% percent will break down the polysaccharides. Some herbalists make a decoction of the root and then preserve it with 20% alcohol. 

Marshmallow root can be drunk as a tea, used externally as a wash, added to other tea blends, made into a syrup and used as a powder infused into water, honey, or ghee. 

Marshmallow leaves and flowers can be made into a tea, syrup, or used as a fomentation. 

Marshmallow is considered safe for everyone to use although it is recommended to take it hours after taking prescription medications as it may inhibit the absorption. 

All parts of the plant can be infused into oil for use as a salve or ointment. 

Marshmallow plant is specific for many common ailments, yet has a complexity that renders it useful for a myriad of problems. I hope you enjoy learning about marshmallow and are able to create a variety of herbal remedies from this versatile plant for the enjoyment and well-being of you and your family. 


jim mcdonald said...

learnt from Howie Brounstein:

Demulcents can also act as drying agents, like astringents. If you take or apply the herb in a not fully hydrated state, it will absorb moisture from tissues, or a wound.

So, if you were to think about a oozey ulceration, you'd not want to put hydrated marshmallow mucilage on it (too damp), but if you put dry marshmallow root powder on it, it will absorb the dampness and dry out the wound.

I saw this work really good with a powder of marshmallow and goldenseal (3:1) on an infected oozey ulceration that didn't want to respond to any other treatment.


Rosalee de la Foret said...

Very interesting. Thanks jim (and Howie).

Sarah said...

Thanks Rosalee. I'm always loathe to harvest my marshmallow roots, but make oil every year from the leaves and used them last year or an effective cough syrup. Now I shall start experimenting with a leaf tea.

Marqueta (Mar-keet-a) said...

Dear Rosalee,

Wonderful stuff! I have a whole yard full of mallow, which is calling out to be harvested :).



Howie Brounstein said...

Many folks consider marshmallow to be a "mellow" herb; however, I have had a number of clients avoid emergency room visits with thick slimy marshmallow tea! BTW Jim, thanks for the footnote references to me

Eden said...

Thanks for this post. It is a wonderful skin and hair treatment for even normal skin. Use it in lotions, herbal hair rinses and soaps for softening and detangling. Works well in preparations for all hair types, including curly or wavy, as well as natural black hair. Externally it is also safe for babies.

Tanya said...

Hi Rosalee

Interesting post. You say that all parts of the mallow can be infused in oil. Well I am interested in making an infused oil using: (1) the marshmallow root and (2)the malva sylvestris flowers, but I would like to know whether it is possible to infuse using the dried versions and whether I should use the stove method or the sun method.

Your input on this matter would be greatly appreciated. Thanks

Rosalee de la Forêt said...

I would use dried mallow in a cold oil infusion. Let me know what works for you!

Naturally Mindful said...

How long should the cold oil be infused for and at what ratio? I came to your post doing a google search and no one seems to have info or oil infused with marshmallow for external oil, so I'd super appreciate any input! :)

Rosalee de la Forêt said...

I'd infuse fro 4-6 weeks at a 1:5 dried root ratio.

txagsw said...

Rosalee, how would you use and at what ratio would you use the leaves and flowers? Cold infusion?

Rosalee de la Forêt said...

I generally use a hot infusion for the leaves and flowers. That would be a nice thing to try out though - make one cold and one hot and see the difference.

For the leaves you could fill a pint jar 1/4 full with leaves and then fill with the hot water. Let it steep for 20-30 minutes. Then strain.

I use the leaves a lot in tea blends where I want a mucilaginous quality but want to use aerial portions (because of weight issues or shorter steeping time).

km klersy said...

Hi -I have a recipe that called for marshmallow root powder and I mistakenly bought just marchmallow root instead. Would it work to send it for a spin thru my nutribullet with the grinder blade to turn it into a powder form?

Rosalee de la Forêt said...

Marshmallow roots aren't that hard so a nutribullet should get it to powdered form. Good luck.

Sue said...

What parts of the plant do you use for acid reflux? Thank you.

Rosalee de la Forêt said...

The roots are commonly used. The leaves could work as well.

Kerri said...

Hello! I have marshmallow root powder, but I have recipes calling for the dried form. Would I use a smaller amount of the powder like I would do with fresh herbs vs dried?

Rosalee de la Forêt said...

I guess that would depend on your recipe and what you are making...?