Althea officinalis

A. sylvestris


Soothing, cooling, moistening and mucilaginous, marshmallow roots, leaves and flowers have long been used to ease sore, irritated throat and mouth, soothe mucous membranes, cool heartburn and calm digestive woes. Ever touch a leaf? They are soft as velvet! All parts reliably help quiet intestinal distress, ease inflammatory bowel conditions, help heal leaky gut and gastric, duodenal ulcers, soothe any and all inflamed tissue, calm diarrhea and help heal urinary distress.

The genus name, Althaea, is derived from the Greek, altho, which means to cure, and the family name, Malvaceae, comes from the Greek, malak, meaning soft. Marshmallows are indeed soft and healing, demulcent and emollient. The roots contain 25-35% mucilage, polysaccharides and starches, as well as tannins, pectins, asparagine, quercetin and kaempferol, and phenolic acids such as salicylic acid. The leaves contain mucilage, flavonoids, and essential oil. Using a cold water infusion, instead of hot, is the best way to extract and make use of all that soothing, cooling mucilage.

A. officinalis is called Rosa ri li fuossi and A. sylvestris is known simply as malva in Southern Italia. The mallows are herbaceous species common throughout the southern peninsula and one of the most important medicinal species in our folk pharmacopoeia. Its use as a panacea is made clear by a local saying, “La malva, da ogni mal’ ti salva.” (“The common mallow saves you from every disease.”) The aerial parts of the mallows, prepared as an infusion or decoction, are often used for their restorative properties to treat cold, flu, stomach ache and colic, for the relief of menstrual cramps and as a postpartum depurative. These plants are also used topically to relieve toothache due to dental abscess or decay, to soothe heat and diaper rash, to heal bruises, to help drain boils and abscess, and as a remedy against mastitis. Both species are also commonly used to treat a number of SSTIs (skin and soft tissue infections) most of which are typically associated with bacterial infection. In veterinary care, a decoction prepared with mallow and aerial parts of nettle is administered after cow dropping.

The whole plant is edible. Mallow was a prized vegetable among the Romans, who considered it a delicacy. The Chinese, Egyptians and Syrians all use it as a food plant. Egyptians used the sap of the root to soothe sore throats. In the 1800’s, the French combined this curative juice with rose water flavored egg white meringue and formed it in candy molds. Since the sweet, nourishing sap extraction was labor intensive and time consuming, a mixture of gelatin and corn syrup soon replaced it. Marshmallow leaves are widely used as a potherb. Try adding them to salads or to soups to thicken them. Horace mentions their laxative properties and Dioscorides extolled its medicinal virtues.

Marshmallow has long been considered a funerary herb, used to bless and decorate graves. Sometimes referred to as mortification root, marshmallow’s use as a funerary herb actually extends to at least 65,000 years. Neanderthals used mallow flowers along with yarrow, cornflowers and grape hyacinths to cover their dead.

Pliny seems to agree with what my Southern Italia neighbors tell me. He said, “Whosoever shall take a spoonful of the mallows shall that day be free from all diseases that may come to him.” Early Arabian doctors used the leaves as a poultice to treat inflammation. The dried and powdered root of A. officinalis makes a great substance to bind ingredients when making pills, lozenges and incense. It’s an emollient, soothes sore throats, eases coughs and hoarseness as well as benefits the entire digestive tract.

Marshmallow root excels as a soothing mouthwash and as a cooling wash for treating any number of skin problems, including psoriasis and eczema. Make a poultice from grated freshly dug roots or dried powdered roots that have been moistened and apply it to a wound or burn to relieve pain and accelerate healing. Marshmallow root acts as a natural skin moisturizer, so makes a great addition to skin lotions and can also be used as a hair conditioning rinse for limp, brittle or dry hair.

Flower Essence is said to bring us the inner freedom to cross mental boundaries, move beyond limitations and drop hindering beliefs.

Magical Lore Marshmallow is associated with the moon and the goddesses Althea, Aphrodite and Venus. Plant near the home to attract love, fertility and good fortune. To enhance fertility, collect a few marshmallow seeds under the light of the full moon and place them in a magical red bag. Mallow flowers are used in all love spells.

Culture Marshmallow is a native of Europe, found from the northern countries to the southern tip of Italia. It likes to grow in moist areas such as salt marshes, damp meadows, roadside ditches, near the sea and on the banks of tidal rivers. A. officinalis has pale pink or white flowers with large, rounded, thick, soft, toothed leaves that are velvety on both sides. It grows up to three or four feet tall. The flowers are in bloom from July through September, and are followed, as in other species of this order, by the flat, round fruit commonly called “cheeses.” The perennial roots are thick, long and tapering, very tough and pliant, whitish yellow outside, white and fibrous inside.

We start marshmallow seeds in flats during early spring and transplant seedlings into the garden in May. Marshmallow prefers rich, moist, well-drained soil with plenty of compost worked in. A perennial plant, it grows fairly quickly, becoming a beautiful mound of leaves in the first year, then sending up a stalk of flowers in the second year. Hummingbirds love these flowers. We dig the roots in fall and dry them on screens or tincture them immediately. We gather the leaves any time they are green and vibrant, or cut the entire top of the plant, stems, leaves and flowers and dry on screens. We store dried marshmallow whole and process as needed.

“Every creature is a glittering, glistening mirror of divinity.”          Hildegard von Bingen

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