The garden as a home pharmacy: Marshmallow and Mallow

A beautiful garden can also be a useful and healthy garden. In the next article I will discuss the technical cultivation, aesthetic and health aspects of Marshmallow, a plant that belongs in such a herbaceous ornamental garden. The Marsh Marshmallow, as it is officially called, is a 1 to 1.5m sturdy upright perennial that survives on its taproots. It grows in moist meadows rich in mineral salts, along ditches and banks, but is very rare. I have never seen it in the wild myself. Fortunately it grows well in my own garden, even on some dry and poor sandy soil. Tearing is the easiest method to propagate it, but sowing also works well. Both Marshmallow and the related Mallow Herbs (Malva) are beautiful and useful participants in a herbaceous ornamental garden, although they behave completely differently.
The Great Mallow (Malva sylvestris L.) is a real wanderer, which spreads everywhere and then keeps popping up in different places in the garden, while the Marshmallow always faithfully appears in the same spot. The Mallow is a flamboyantly colorful tomboy, the Heemst a stately gentleman in gray and white.
De Heemst was once the pride of Belgian herb cultivation. Before 1914, the annual yield of flowers, leaves and roots was on average 75,000 kg and the good quality of our marshmallow root was known throughout Europe. Now, we have to make do with the plants from our own garden.

The word ‘Marshmallow’ and ‘Althaea’

Strangely enough, there seems to be no etymological explanation for the word Marshmallow. Hemst, Himst and Hoemst would also have been used. On the other hand, there are many explanations for the old name Witte malve or Malassoo, which means to soften. The official name Althaea was already known to Dioscorides and is derived from the Greek althaino (healing or curing). As with many other plants, medicinal properties play a role in the naming. At Heemst we also find this in a number of colloquial names such as Tandroot and Witte pappel. We already read the German name Weispappel by Konrad van Megenberg (± 1250) and Sammetpapel by Cordus in his Botanologicon from 1534 and can be traced back to its use as a paste for abscesses.
Slime plants with their membrane formation on the skin have always been described as soothing, calming and protective. We find strong stories about this in the Roman cultural historian M. Terrentius Varro (116 – 27 BC), who describes how the priestesses of Apollo walked over glowing coals with marshmallow ointment on their feet. We also find something similar with the famous Albertus Magnus. He tells that magicians with oiled hands could remove all kinds of objects from the fire without getting burned.
For modern magicians, fake psychologists and other human manipulators, here is a French recipe for becoming fireproof: Mix marshmallow juice, fresh egg white, psyllid seed (Plantago psyllium), crushed lime and horseradish; Apply this to your hands, let it dry and then apply a second layer. When this has dried, one can carry red-hot iron with these hands without getting burned.
Of course, try it out at your own risk!

Materia medica

Several pharmacopoeias mention the marshmallow root. In the Dutch Pharmacopoeia 4, the dried herb is described as cylindrical or weakly conical, sometimes slightly thickened at the base, long 10 – 20 cm, thick up to 2.5 cm, straight or slightly curved, slightly angular as a result of peeling and with shallow, wide, longitudinal grooves due to drying. Surface smooth, somewhat fibrous, dirty white with many transverse brown scars of the adventitious roots. Smell weak, taste bland, slimy. Young dried roots are fleshy on the inside and remain flexible, while older, perennial roots are hard and highly lignified internally. Mucous cells are less common in woody parts and are therefore of poorer quality. In the autumn the one- or two-year-old roots are harvested, washed quickly after harvesting, stripped of stem parts and secondary roots and then scraped to remove the outer bark layers. To enhance the white appearance, the dried roots are turned in a drum for a while. Only the scraped, purified root (Althaea radix mundata) is official. Storage must be done in a very dry place, in well-closed jars and away from light and insects. This root easily attracts moisture (hygroscopic).

Composition and pharmacological action

It seems obvious to me that Marshmallow contains mucilage, up to 35%. In addition, there is still an equal amount of pectin present in the plant. Research by Tomoda has shown that mucilages have a phagocytosis-stimulating effect in vitro and a blood sugar-lowering effect in mice. Nitrogen-containing compounds such as asparagine, lecithin and betaine are present in small quantities and cause rapid spoilage of the moist root powder. That is the reason to store this plant in a dry place.


Marshmallow as a mucilaginous plant is therefore especially suitable for lubricating and soothing dry, irritated airways. So it can be used for sore throat, hoarseness and respiratory infections accompanied by a dry cough. With Petrus Nylandt (-) it sounds like this: For Sinckinge and the thin Cathars who fall on their chest and for the heavy ones cough. Marshmallow can also be used for irritated and inflamed mucous membranes of the stomach and intestines, although other mucus plants such as Linseed and Icelandic moss are used. Chewing the dried root when the baby teeth come through is the most remarkable use of Marshmallow. The mild taste is acceptable for children and nibbling releases mucus substances that have a soothing effect on irritated gums. Dry skin becomes supple again with compresses of marshmallow root, but the leaf and flower can also be used as a lotion for cracks and couperose.
If you search long enough, you will also find a laundry list of other indications for Marshmallow: syrup for insomnia, bladder infection, vapor baths for sinusitis. Althaea officinalis can be tried for these ailments, but there are much better plants.

How to use

The most used and best known is Marshmallow Syrup (Sirupus Althaeae). In the Dutch Pharmacopoeia 4 it is prepared as follows: Macerate three parts of Althaea root, cut into thin slices and washed well with forty-five parts of water for 6 hours. Collect and cover the root again with water to make a mixture of forty parts. Prepare this colature (the filtered), with sixty parts of sugar, one hundred parts of syrup.
I usually make syrup by steeping fresh marshmallow root, cut lengthwise, in honey. Easy to make and healthy. A herbal tea is best made by macerating 1 teaspoon of small pieces of marshmallow root in a cup of water for 30 minutes. Chewing the fresh or dried root is a pleasant and certainly efficient method of use for dry coughs, hoarseness, sore throat and can also be tried for canker sores and other gum problems.
Compound herbal mixtures with Marshmallow are abundant in pharmacy books, especially combinations with Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra L.) and Anise (Pimpinella An isum L.) are tasty and effective.
A much used and interesting mixture, probably from Dr Valnet and used again by Dr Moatti:

  • 2 parts Marshmallow powder,
  • 1 part Licorice powder,
  • 1 part lactose

to be used for constipation 1g , 1 to 3 times a day.
For external use there are the Species emollientis sen ad cataplasmata, in which mucilage plants are used as a paste to soften and ripen abscesses. From the German Pharmacopoeia (DAB 6):

  • Matricariae flos (flowers of Chamomile) 20 parts by weight
  • Althaeae fol. pulv. (marshmallow leaf powder) 20
  • Malvae fol. pulv. (mallow leaf powder) 20
  • Meliloti hb. pulv. (powder of field honey clover) 20
  • Lini sem. pulv. (linseed powder) 20

A tablespoon of this mixture is steeped for 30 minutes with a cup of cold (20°) water. This is then boiled into a paste, which is served as warmly as possible.
Marshmallow, a famous plant from the past, has been somewhat forgotten in our time. Hopefully this beautiful plant with its clear indication will be reincorporated into our contemporary gardens.

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