Marshmallow

Althea officinalis

Common Names
Mallow, mallards, mauls, Schloss Tea, cheeses, mortification root.


Parts Used
Primarily the roots, but also the leaves and flowers. 


Herbal Actions

Demulcent, emollient, expectorant, anti-inflammatory, vulnerary, immune-enhancing, relaxant, galactagogue, nervine, diuretic, laxative, anti-spasmodic.

Energetics
Cooling, bitter, sweet, moistening.

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Soothing Marshmallow

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. All parts of the plant produce mucilage, especially the root. The leaves and flowers are a traditional food. The name Althaea is derived from the Greek "Altheo" meaning "to cure". The family name Malva comes from "Malakae", which means soft. This common plant is a useful substitute for the endangered demulcent herb Slippery Elm (Ulmus fulva).
 

 Marshmallow has been known throughout ancient Egyptian, Arab, Greek, and Roman cultures with a continually recorded use that dates back 2000 years. The ancient Egyptians used mallow root to make a sweet, gooey delicacy for their gods and pharaohs that is considered to be the first "marshmallow."  Egyptian marshmallows were a mixture of mallow sap, honey, grains and baked into cakes. The modern marshmallow took form in France in the 1800's. The creation of the marshmallow confection has everything to do with the mucilaginous nature of Althea officinalis, particularly the root.  

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Medicinal Use

Marshmallow is considered a Polycrest herb, meaning it has many uses and can be applied to treat many different conditions. The most apparent and abundant action is its demulcent nature. A demulcent herb like Marshmallow is rich in mucilage and gets slimy when mixed with water. This "slime" is nourishing and protective of irritated or inflamed tissues. Demulcents are cooling, soothing, and calming. It is used to moisten a dry constitution, which can be identified as someone with dry skin, tends to be thirsty, has anxiety, nervousness, insomnia, or urinary problems. If you live in a dry climate adding Marshmallow to your herbal formulations can help counteract the dryness of your environment and it can also correct the drying effects of other herbs with a dry nature. 

Medicinal properties of Marshmallow are used to cool inflammations of the digestive system, respiratory tract, urinary tract and the skin. It soothes and moistens all mucous membranes. It is very helpful for sore throats, dry coughs, as well as bladder and urinary tract infections. Marshmallow will also support localized immune actions in any tissues that it makes contact with. It can provide powerful relief for IBS and Ulcerative Colitis, and makes an excellent syrup for a dry or inflamed cough, especially when made with honey. Health issues that are inherently dry in nature, such as insomnia and anxiety, can also be improved by consuming the mucilage of Marshmallow root.

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Mucilage - more than just slime

Plant mucilage is nearly identical in composition to human mucous. Its topical slimy effect yields the majority of its soothing properties, as it coats inflamed tissues. Plant mucilage contains a vast array of plant polysaccharides which are polymeric carbohydrate molecules produced by plants. Their function in the plants is for structure and storage of glucose. Some polysaccharides are detected by the immune system and perceived to be bacterial coats. This can improve local or systemic immunity. Other polysaccharides are taken up into cells and alter their physiology, while some types trigger cells to repair tissues. 
 

Topical Applications

Marshmallow is an excellent external treatment for burns, scalds, sores, bruises, boils, skin inflammation, sunburn, eczema, psoriasis, poison ivy, and any hot condition with pain and/or itching. 

  • May be applied as tea or slimy poultice

  • Antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and promotes wound healing. 

  • Activates local immunity.

  • Powerful healing effect on the upper GI. 

  • Consider vaginal application of tea. 

  • Use as a mouthwash and gargle for gum disease and inflammations of the mouth and throat.

The many uses of Marshmallow

Respiratory Health
Marshmallow can be used as a solo treatment for dry cough, or a component of a treatment for an unproductive cough. It is not helpful for moist coughs with lots of mucous. 
   
Digestive Health
Marshmallow is indicated anywhere there is pain and inflammation in the digestive tract. It is especially soothing for heartburn, but not when bloating and/or nausea are predominant. A powder of the root mixed into water or honey to make a paste and then taken by the spoon full helps to get the herb in contact with the entire length of the digestive lining, making this a very useful treatment for IBS, diverticulitis, and Crohn's disease. An infusion can be used as an enema for colitis.
   
Urinary Health
Marshmallow can be used for infection or inflammation anywhere in the urinary tract. For UTIs, it can be combined with other herbs that support urinary health, such as Uva Ursi. In some cases, a simple of Althaea will relieve interstitial cystitis and soothe bladder pain.

Vaginal Health
Marshmallow powder mixed into water to make a paste can be applied topically for vaginitis and vaginal dryness. A decoction of the dried root added to a sitz bath is incredibly soothing postpartum and speeds up recovery. It is often recommended to mix with other wound healing herbs astringent herbs such as yarrow, calendula, and St. Johnswort for this purpose. 

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Preparation

A decoction of Marshmallow is the most commonly recommended method. Although powered herb can be carried and then added to water (hot or cold) for quick applications either internal or external. Tinctures have been made by some, but not determined useful, as much of marshmallow's demulcent compounds are water soluble. 

  • Decoction: This process extracts the starch-containing inulin (the primary food for healthy gut flora). Add 1 part Marshmallow root (cut up) to 2 parts cold water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20-30 minutes, slowing evaporating or reducing the liquid to half. Cool and drink. Store any extra tea in a glass jar with a lid, refrigerate and use within 3 days.

  • Infusion: A cold water infusion does not extract starch (inulin) and only mildly increases slime factor, depending on herb to menstruum ratio. 

  • Syrup: Make a decoction as described above and add 1/3 the volume of honey. Stir well. Cool and keep refrigerated, will keep up to a month.

  • Poultice: Mix one teaspoon of marshmallow root powder with just enough water to make a paste. Apply topically to wounds and burns.

A Note on Mucilage and Cold Water Extraction
There is an "Herban" legend in the herbal community that mucilaginous plants must be extracted in cold water in order to extract the "slime" or mucilaginous properties. This is, in actuality, not true. Hot water extracts mucilage and starch very effectively. Cold water extracts some, but not all mucilage. It does not extract inulin and starch. Cold water will still yield the "slime," but other important medicinal properties will not be extracted. 

Dosage

  • Water extractions - 1-4 ounces per day

  • Powder - 6-15 grams of powder per day

  • For Kidney irritations - make a decoction and drink 1/2 pint daily for 4 days, if it hasn’t passed stop a few days and start again

Combinations

Marshmallow pairs well with Lobelia in a syrup for coughs, and with tincture of Cimicifuga (Black Cohosh) to heighten antispasmodic effects, which is most useful in the passing of kidney stones.

Contraindications

Marshmallow is generally considered safe for all ages. Use in combination with warming and drying herbs for those who are already damp and cold. 

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References

  • Bennett, Robin Rose. The Gift of Healing Herbs. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2014.

  • Bergner, Paul. Folk Remedies Database. Boulder: Bergner Communications, 2001.

  • Cook M.D., William H. The Physiomedical Dispensatory. 1869. Reprints, Boulder: Medical Herbalism, 2007.

  • Grieve, M. (Maud). A Modern Herbal. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1931.

  • Skenderi, Gazmend. Herbal Vade Mecum. Rutherford: Herbacy Press, 2003.

  • Tierra, Michael. Planetary Herbology. Twin Lakes: Lotus Press, 1992.

  • Tilgner, Dr. Sharol Marie. Herbal Medicine from the Heart of the Earth. Pleasant Hill: Wise Acres LLC, 2020.