Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)
by Lara Pacheco
Common name: Marshmallow
Latin name: Althaea officinalis
Other Names: Mallards, Mauls, Schloss Teai, Cheeses, Mortification Koot, Mallow, White mallow, Common marsh-mallow, Mortification root, Sweet weed, Wymote
From the Mallow or Malvaceae family, related to Hibiscus, Hollyhock and Cotton. Native to Europe, Western Asia, North Africa. A perennial plant that can grow 3-4 ft high. The word Althaea comes from the Greek work, altho, which means to cure.
History, Ethnobotany, and Folklore:
As the name implies, Marshmallow root was used for the marshmallow candies, although today the ingredients do not include this medicinal plant. This tradition originally hails from Egypt where the root was decocted until it became a thick solution where honey was added to make a syrup and then egg whites whipped to make it sweet, puffy treat. Hollyhock, a plant related to Marshmallow, may have been one of the flowers put next to one of the Neanderthal remains found in the Shanidar caves of Iraq thereby suggesting its possible significance of this plant family in ceremony or passage into other worlds.
Roots, leaves, Flowers
Cultivation and Harvest:
Marshmallow is a revered herbal ally because it can be cultivated easily in the garden, given proper care, and when harvested has many useful medicinal properties. The plant seems to like the balance between the dark and light. Althaea does well in partial shade where dampness has collected under foliage. The natural habitat is one along salt marshes, riverbanks and moist, sandy soils; so we should look for similar conditions in our gardens. Marshmallow also takes up room growing upwards rather than laterally, which makes it beneficial to grow alongside say, Lady’s Mantle, which spreads as a ground cover and also enjoys the two worlds between the light and dark.
Depending on which part of the plant you intend to receive medicine from, leaves or roots, will also dictate when you harvest. The leaves should be harvested prior flowering if you are procuring the mineral and respiratory benefits since most of its energy is there in the spring. I still have used leaves at the end of the season before the plant dies back to make use of what is available in the garden and also allowing the plant to live through its full lifecycle. When you see the flowers emerge, they can be harvested for tea, although I only gather one or two to taste and prefer to leave the rest to my pollinator friends. Finally, the root is best harvested in the Autumn, when the upper parts of the plant has died back and the energy and medicine of the plant has been drawn down into the root. I harvest the root in a way that allows the plant to continue growing by only harvesting a portion of the root mass. Leaving some root allows the plant to return the following Spring, and I see a mutual respect and reverence emerge with my plant allies. I do this by cutting out a section around a node of the root and leave the remainder of a root where there is still an identifiable crown connected.
Root-Demulcent, diuretic, emollient, tonic, nervine, relaxant, antispasmodic, nutritive, vulnerary, endocrine restorative.
Leaf- demulcent, expectorant, diuretic, emollient, anti-catarrhal, pectoral
Constituents: root- 25% mucilage, tannins, pectin, asparagine
Leaf- mucilage, trace of an essential oil
Energetics and Taste: Sweet, Nutritive, Neutral, Cooling, Soothing, Moistening
First and foremost, the leaves and roots are edible which is in part indicative of its nutritive value. Using the classic doctrine of signatures (observing the physical characteristics of the plant to understand medicinal properties) as our guide in assessing the medicinal properties of Marshmallow, we can gather that the tiny hairs on the leaves that lend to its fuzzy texture are its support for the respiratory system. The tiny hairs covering the leaves are reminiscent of cilia in our lungs. Marshmallow root and leaves especially are a soothing expectorant. Much of what makes a mucilage are its polysaccharides that are a complex carbohydrate bonded by sugar molecules. As some health conscious herbalists, we might hear that word ‘sugar’ and think ‘bad’ but it is exactly in that biochemical component that imbues Marshmallow with what I consider to be its most therapeutic value. That is its nutritive properties because it has some of that sweet consistency that tells us to taste it if we are depleted, malnourished and need deep support. We can think of Licorice as a strong example of this particular type of action.
I also like to notice how Althaea exudes a soft gentleness in her image, her touch and taste. She evokes the yin, as in traditional Chinese medicine, signifies the passive, the feminine and coolness. We live in a culture in which toxic masculinity dominates leading to imbalance, so I believe all of us can breathe in the beauty of Marshmallow flowers and leaves to seek some balance. One way I access the tender nature of the plant is to pick off a few of the flowers to suck on. Using the leaves for tea is a way to invite the minerals of the plant into your body. Our bodies are better grounded when we have what our body needs and are nurtured by the minerals and vitamins that it depends on to thrive.
Althaea’s viscous nature when the root is saturated with water is a large part of its healing properties. That slime that releases from a long cold infusion coats and soothes tissues in our bodies. And why and when do we need soothing? Our immunity in part is better equipped in its role of fighting pathogens when we have healthy well coated mucous membranes, and tissues that are not inflamed. When we have dried out mucous membranes, it’s harder to stimulate those immune fighting cells and eliminate pathogens from the body.
Soothing is also necessary for dried out and inflamed tissues. So here we can consider the lungs and imagine a very hard, dry cough, dry nasal passages and even inflamed GI tract. The damp root can also soothe inflamed skin. Marshmallow can on the other hand have an astringent quality, if for example, the dried root is applied to a moist area of the body. As the action of the root soaks up the water, and turns into a slimy film, it then also gathers up moisture in the tissue itself. Think of ground up Marshmallow root like a cotton ball that you can apply to a wound. The leaf, with its higher starch content and little mucilage, is indicated for cystitis, urethritis, and urinary gravels. Here it is this plant’s diuretic action along with its mucilage that helps to eliminate buildup in the urinary tract while soothing that tissue at the same time.
Specific Indication- The fiery choleric type that pushes themselves into exhaustion on a long-term basis.
Our dominant culture celebrates the choleric personality, that is one who hits the ground running with intensity and with the expectation that everyone should be working harder and faster to exhaustion. In our current political fervor, apart from that personality trait, many may feel impassioned about a list of injustices occurring that they then feel they need to actively address while they also might be feeling emotionally taxed. Over time, especially if you are a marginalized person living in a oppressive system, the stress response of the body as well as the outer influence of working hard to get by may lead folks to over consume caffeine, sleep less, rely on readily available and cheaper processed foods. These socially affected behaviorisms, of course, influence the body and depending on one’s constitution may lead to a hot and dried out state or that of the choleric when out of balance.
What better plant to work with then the one that is cool and moist? Over a long period of time when a person is hot and dry they tend to not absorb nutrients from food well since digestive fluids help to break food down properly. This type of heat and irritation in the gastro-intestinal tract can cause damage thereby inhibiting proper absorption and even lead to leaky gut. According to Priest and Priest, Althaea is suited for the elderly with ‘chronic inflammatory conditions,’ but in my experience is helpful for people of any age needing deep nourishing and soothing.
- Calendula- Great for a protocol in healing gut especially in the case of leaky gut. Also for any type of ulceration along the GI as the calendula will help heal the wound while Althaea will soothe and lessen the inflammation and heat. In this case best accessed as tea.
- Nettles- Useful in the case of mineral depletion in the body in which a person has been unable to absorb nutrients digestively and/or from a poor, SAD diet. Also in the case of stagnation, in which a person is experiencing allergies, interstitial cystitis and drinking more than 2 cups of coffee a day, the combination of Urtica and Althaea as tea could benefit greatly drinking as a daily tonic.
- Astragalus- As a deep immune supportive and adaptogenic root that has an affinity for the lungs, I like to use Astragalus along with Marshmallow root when there’s a tinge of weakness in the respiratory system. This is where a person may consistently get lung infections or after a lung infection, they continue to have a dry cough that lingers.
Dosage and Method of Delivery:
Tea: A cold infusion overnight of the dry root chopped or ground up works best for accessing the soothing demulcent properties. Let 1 cup of chopped root sit overnight in cold water to drink the next day. Also you can put 1 tsp of root into a cup of water and boil for 10-15 minutes.
Tincture: If making tincture, as fresh use 50A:50W at a 1:2 ratio and dry extract 25A:75W as 1:5 ratio. Can take 1-4ml, 3x a day.
Honeyed root- simmering the root in honey for immune support and as a digestive tonic.
Lara Pacheco is a Latinx mamita, clinical herbalist and community organizer who runs Seed and Thistle Apothecary. Seed and Thistle is a herbal company that provides educational programs for youth and adults, health consultations and a monthly herbal CSH through home and heart grown medicine. Lara also runs a full year apprenticeship program and is starting a pop up clinic, called the Seasonal Wellness Clinic, to address access to plant medicine and bodywork to her community in Cully of Portland, OR. When not working with the plants, Lara loves playing music, and spending time outdoors with her friends and family.
- Felter, H.W. The Eclectic Materia Medica, Pharmacology and Therapeutics. Eclectic Medical Publications. 1922.
- Hoffman, David. Holistic Herbal: A Safe and Practical Guide to Making and Using Herbal Remedies. Element books. 1996.