Originally published on Herbal Medicine from Your Garden
The marsh mallow or marshmallow, Althaea officinalis, is also called althea, common marshmallow, mortification root, sweet weed and wymote. It is in the same family (Malvaceae) as musk mallow and hollyhock.
The name “mortification root” refers to the use of the root as a poultice for infected wounds; it is said to heal the most stubborn infections, and thus prevent gangrene. I have not been able to find any explanation for the name wymote.
Marshmallow the herb is the origin of the sweet of the same name, although the stuff you buy in sweet shops nowadays never gets a sniff of the plant. Marshmallow the sweet was once made by drying and powdering the roots, then making the powder into a paste and roasting it.
Marsh mallow is a hardy perennial reaching about 4 feet (1.2m) in height by 2’6″ (75cm) across, a native of Europe, North Africa and Western Asia. It is not fussy as to soil, and can even grow in saline conditions, but prefers a moist situation. It will not grow in shade. It’s an attractive plant, worthy of a place in any ornamental or herb garden and could also be used in a sensory garden because of its downy leaves..
In many parts of the world, marshmallow roots are used as food, particularly during food shortages. All parts of the plant are edible, though all are also mucilaginous (you might say slimy) when cooked, and although the leaves can be used in salads, because they are fibrous and downy, they need to be finely chopped to be palatable. The water used for cooking marsh mallow can be reduced (by boiling) until it has a similar consistency to egg whites, and used as a substitute after cooling – even for things like meringues. This is obviously of most interest to people who are allergic to eggs, and to vegans. The flowers can also be used for tea.
Marshmallow has been used medicinally for centuries. All parts of the plant are active, in particular the roots.
The least slimy of the medicinal preparations is the cold extract, which is made by steeping 1-2 tbsp chopped root or whole plant in 240ml (1 US cup, 8 fl oz) of cold water for 8 hours, after which it is strained. The dosage is 1 cup a day (which can be split into 3 doses).
A decoction is made by adding 1 tsp of chopped root to 1 cup cold water, bring to a boil and simmer for 15-30 minutes, then strain. Use the same dosage as for cold extract.
A poultice is made by mixing chopped root with honey and wrapping in a closely woven bandage. Apply to the area to be treated for 2-3 hours, then replace with a new one as required.
Internally, use the cold extract, standard infusion or decoction to treat chest infections, pleurisy, tickly coughs and catarrh, cystitis or urinary tract infections. Use externally to treat gum disease, as an eye bath for sore and infected eyes, and as a vaginal douche for bacterial vaginitis (bv). Use a poultice to treat boils and similar skin eruptions, splinters, open sores and ulcers, insect bites and gangrene. Give a piece of peeled root to teething infants to chew on.
As I always recommend with plants destined for the medicine chest, marsh mallow should be grown organically to avoid corruption or elimination of the active constituents by the presence of foreign chemicals.
To find out more about growing organic herbs visit the Gardenzone.