By Lauren Stauber, certified clinical herbalist, licensed massage therapist
Malvaceae / Mallow Family
Root, leaf and flower
Here in the often dry, sun-parched mountains of Colorado, Marshmallow is one of the herbs I reach for more than any other. When there is need for soothing coolness, healing moisture, softness and fluidity, I think of Althaea. Native to Europe, Asia and Africa, this tall, velvety, pink-flowered perennial is at home in salt marshes, but it grows comfortably in many varied environments near water.
Although Marshmallow is considered a gentle herb, its properties are far from meek. Like a wisely timed hug, it helps create a relaxed healing environment in the body. An herb of balanced opposites, Marshmallow can have a normalizing affect when applied appropriately. It is both diuretic and demulcent, and has a drawing action that compliments its moistening properties. It is nutritive, reparative and building, but it also helps the body rid itself of toxins and debris. One of the qualities Marshmallow is most sought for is its high mucilage content, especially the long taproot. A tea of Marshmallow is slippery like the natural fluids produced by healthy mucous membranes. This aspect comes forth most readily in a cold infusion. Marshmallow also contains starch, pectin, sugar, salt, flavonoids, amino acids and tannins.
For thousands of years, Althaea has been turned to when there is excess heat, dryness or hardening in the body. Traditional applications include dry cough, sore throat, inflammation of the respiratory, urinary and gastrointestinal tracts, acid reflux, rheumatic pain, dryness of the joints, kidney stones and other gravel, constipation or diarrhea, wounds and burns, and general irritations of the skin and mucosa. Marshmallow has been observed to act both locally and systemically, soothing and moistening the places it touches directly while activating a similar response throughout the body. It is believed by many herbalists to stimulate and modulate the immune system, and research has shown it to have some antimicrobial activity.
As a baby-safe galactagogue (an herb that increases milk production), Marshmallow has been appreciated by nursing moms, and women through the ages have used it to relieve the dryness and heat of menopause. It has also been valued as a complimentary herb for some of the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Even when not specifically indicated, Marshmallow can be included in any formula where the dry, hot actions of other herbs need some tempering. It adds a pleasant softness and sweetness to a tea, and is a lovely herb for children (one of my son's favorites). Althaea also reaches into non-physical realms, smoothing out nerves roughed up by stress, and inviting emotional flexibility and ease.
Preparations & Applications
Marshmallow can be prepared in many forms including cold and hot infusions, decoctions, infused oils, salves, poultices, powders, soaks, rinses, tinctures, syrups, and flower essences. It is also an ingredient in many body care products and a thickening agent in foods. One of the most delightful preparations for Althaea officinalis is found in old-timey recipes for Marshmallows — yes those things you eat around a campfire or add to hot chocolate. Back in the day, these medicinal confections were most likely prepared for the purpose of soothing a sore throat. And who said medicine can't be yummy!
Cautions and Contraindications
Marshmallow is considered to be very safe, but it may temporarily inhibit absorption so it is best to separate prescription medications from Marshmallow preparations by a few hours.
Recipes (parts by volume)
A Malvaceae Duet (both plants are in the Mallow Family)
Marshmallow root, leaf and flower
1 Tbsp. herbs per 1 cup cold water. I usually use 2-3 parts Marshmallow to 1 part hibiscus, but you can blend to your own taste. Let the herbs continue to infuse as you drink, adding more water as needed. This simple infusion is cool and refreshing on a hot day.
Marshmallow root — 1 part
Red Clover flower — 1 part
Calendula flower — 1/2 part
Peppermint or Spearmint leaf — 1/2 part
Licorice root — 1/4 part
1 Tbsp. herbs per 1 cup hot water. Cover and steep 15 - 20 minutes. Strain and sip slowly.
The Earthwise Herbal (Old World) by Matthew Wood
Planetary Herbology by Michael Tierra
Growing 101 Herbs That Heal by Tammi Hartung
Culpeper's Complete Herbal by Nocholas Culpeper
The Pharmaceutical Importance of Althaea officinalis and Althaea rosea : A Review
The writings of herbalists Rosalee de la Forêt and Jim McDonald