Whenever I sit down to write about a new herb for this blog I start by spending a long time reading about it. Though I studied western herbalism for many years, I am not a practicing herbalist and I always need a refresher on the beauty and benefits of plants. My relationship to plants leaves me in continuous awe. Maybe the plants find you or maybe you find them. Either way often when I choose an herb to share with you all it ends up being something I need in my life!
Let me introduce you to Marshmallow. I know you have probably heard of marshmallows before, delightful sticky treats eaten around campfires, made into rice krispy treats or perhaps the most seasonally appropriate added to a cup of hot cocoa. Well today I am not talking about the sugary confection but instead the root at its origin, Althaea officinalis. Althaea means heal or cure in Greek and that is exactly what this gentle plant does. There are thousands of different species of wild mallows. We will focus on the robust species commonly grown for medicinal purposes.
Marshmallow is part of the Malvaceae family, which is home to other common garden friends such as hollyhocks, okra, hibiscus and even cotton and cocoa. What a diverse and excellent plant family. Plants in this family are generally characterized by palmate leaves, Althaea officinalis has downy soft palmate leaves with petite fluted flowers and Kidney shaped brown seeds. The flowers morph into beautiful ball shaped seed heads. The common name tells us a lot, as it likes to grow in marshy areas. My plants grow quite tall nearly 6 feet and live in soil that is moist most of the year in full sun to partial shade.
A native to the middle east it shows up in the traditional medicinal of Persia. It was used throughout history to treat a plethora of different illnesses from gout to coughs to sciatica. I have been sitting at a desk working a lot recently and I think I am going to see about using it to treat some sciatic pain. Marshmallow is so gentle it is always worth trying for something like that. One of the most notable characteristics of Marshmallow is how mucilaginous it is. If you crush a root it exudes a slimy sticky substance. This substance is likely what helps soothe irritated body tissues such as inflamed parts of the respiratory system when we have a cough. In some studies Marshmallow was shown to be anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, demulcent (soothing) and also immunomodulating. Which according to the Miriam Webster dictionary means it is a substance that affects the immune system.
Marshmallow remedies are made from the leaf, flower and the root of the plant. They come in all forms: powder, tincture, infusion, decoction and syrup. If you have never tried to make “real” marshmallows, it is a really fun activity to do with friends or family. I recently made “real” marshmallow rice crispy treats with some friends. They are a little different in texture and taste to what you might be used to but still very delicious and definitely more nourishing.How to Grow:
Marshmallow is fairly easy to grow once you get it established it will spread and you will have plenty to use. The tough little seeds need a bit of extra care to achieve optimum germination.
Cold stratify the seeds for 3-4 weeks in the fridge. Cold stratification mimics the cold damp conditions of winter. Place the seeds in a damp paper towel in a plastic bag. Label the bag with the date into the fridge and the date that you should take them out. Check the seeds periodically to make sure the paper towel is still damp and check for any mold.
After the 3-4 weeks have passed you can sow your seeds into potting soil. Germination is best in soil temperatures between 60-70 degrees and can take between 2-3 weeks. These lovely plants require a bit of patience but are well worth the wait. Usually only about 50% of perennial herb seeds germinate so make sure you plant enough.
Plant your seedlings after the first sets of true leaves appear. You can give them quite a lot of space as they will spread out rhizomatically. It is a perennial and it also self seeds. If you do not want it to spread too much, cut off the seed heads before they drop in the fall.
I found that 3 plants was sufficient for my needs. It can grow quite bushy and tall so it is a good plant to place in a hedge or along the inside part of a garden bed so that it does not shade out smaller plants. I usually leave the tall stalks on the plants and cut them back in the winter down to the ground. The leaves fall off the stalks in the fall and provide a nice protective mulch for the plant to see it through the winter. In zones 5-9 Marshmallow will definitely be a perennial plant.How to Harvest:
You can harvest leaves pretty much anytime during the growing season. If you want to harvest the flowers they generally flower in mid summer to early fall. It is best to dig the roots in the fall starting in the second year of growth. Cut back the tall stalks and use a digging fork to loosen the soil and roots. You can successfully harvest some roots without needing to harvest the entire plant. Like most roots it is easiest to chop them up before you dry them as they are quite fibrous and can be tough to cut when dry. Fresh marshmallow root is really excellent to use but it can also be dried and stored for later.
Lead Seed Coordinator, Siskiyou Seeds
2.Ziaei, A., Sahranavard, S., & Faizi, M. (2016). Topical herbal remedies for treatment of joint pain according to Iranian Traditional Medicine.
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