I won’t ever forget it. We were on the train towards the west of Ireland from Dublin for a weekend. It was the summer we worked on the farm, me amongst the berries, counting, weighing, squeezing juice and testing. Tasting. William at the main office, in accounting. We were away every weekend traveling and on this particular trip one of the train stations, and cities, was Mallow. We didn’t stop in, we were crossing a mid-land area of open fields similar in a lot of ways to home, but I remember seeing the name Mallow and immediately thinking marshmallow.
And then the years passed away. I found a doctor who helped me understand and overcome a lot of my health struggles, who introduced me to using herbs to support and return to health. Who introduced me to the medicine of Marshmallow. Her introduction was very clinical. Marshmallow was an herb I took amongst a blend to help heal my torn up and reactive gut. An herb amongst many who helped me feel better so I could find my way.
Beyond using in a blend for when gluten cross-contamination causes a negative reaction or during heavy run training, too much holiday stress or similar got in the way, I never thought much of marshmallow. Until one day last spring, about a year ago, when I found in the wetland just after the camas waned and the lupines were all in their purple: pale pink flowers rising up. They took my breath away. I stopped and just stared at them for a while before carrying on with my run. Within the next day or two, William, always bringing home new plants for our yard, had a few pots set out on the patio. One of them drew me immediately.
That’s the plant from the wetland. And somehow, before I even looked at the tag, I knew it was mallow, though I didn’t before know the name of those dreamy marsh flowers.
If you listen and let them, plants can tell you all sorts of things.
This spring I’ve been even more drawn to the mallows around us. William planted ours right outside the front door so I’ve watched it come up from the ground this year. Now in nearly full bloom, those little delicate pinky white flowers atop big leafy leaves. Within herbalism, there runs a theme called the Doctrine of Signatures. Herbs that resemble various parts of the body are often most effective in treating ailments of those body parts. A walnut, resembling a brain, is a classic example. A few weeks ago, I plucked a giant mallow leaf from its stem, placed it delicately in a bud vase, and then proceeded to look at it, to meditate on it if you will, for a number of days. Almost immediately the doctrine of signatures came to mind, because perhaps knowing quite a bit about this plant’s medicinal values, I saw all the surface area of the leaf, resembling so much the villi and microvilli of the small intestine. Villi are finger-like projections where nutrient absorption occurs, and flatten in varying degrees in cases of malabsorption, celiac disease, and some severe GI complaints.
The roots of marsh and other mallows have a particularly slimy and mucilaginous quality, somewhat like oatmeal that’s set a while gets, and this quality makes it particularly useful for soothing internal tissues that are sore or irritated. Think how good a nice cup of warm substance on a sore throat, a somewhat bland liquidous soup on a sore tummy, or even an aloe vera on a burn. This herbal action is called a demulcent. Marshmallow root is a particularly lovely demulcent for those sore throats, achy lower abdomens, dry coughs, and even, and not surprising since it likes to sooth, irritated urinary tracts.
Every time I think of using marshmallow, I think of the gentlest medicine. Just like my morning oatmeal, which might provide some of the same actions given its constituency, marshmallow root infused into a tea is incredibly soothing, just a little sweet, and slightly earthy.
According to herbalist Rosalee de la Forêt, marshmallow root is also what is a ‘yin tonic’ in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and is useful for signs of deficient heat, including hot flashes and night sweats (1).
Unlike most herbs, marshmallow prefers a cold water infusion to extract the mucilaginous and soothing qualities from its ample polysaccharides and starches. So the best way to get its medicine is to put a little of the roots in a jar, pour over room temperature water, and then let it sit and infuse overnight or for a day. As time goes on, you’ll see it change color and become thicker. Strain out the roots, and sip on it hot or cold. It will immediately get to work soothing the tissues you need.
I like to keep it on hand and make a big jar if my throat has been sore or I’ve gotten into a troublesome pattern with foods causing lower intestine pain. And, this last winter and spring, I’ve gotten into the practice of making a jar a week or so to drink as preventative medicine for when running and training a lot, since we now know that a training cycle with lots of challenging running causes just the upset lower GI tissues that marshmallow can assist with.
Lastly, if you’re wondering about the name, yes marshmallow was the original plant used to make the white fluffy marshmallows for our summer smores or sweet treats. While no longer used, the candying process apparently results in a somewhat squishy sweet root that resembles modern marshmallows. Also, the plants in the wetland are actually more likely Malva sylvestris or similar rather than marshmallow (Althea oficinalis). Nevertheless, they’re all in the same plant family and can be used interchangeably. Of note: I don’t wildcraft from either public or private property, unless its my own, and I encourage you to be incredibly conscious before harvesting plants from the wild.
Marshmallow Root Tea
In some of these photos, I combined marshmallow root with Slippery Elm Bark since the two have similar soothing properties and work well together. They both can be made separately as I outline below.
1 quart jar
1-2 Tbs. dried marshmallow roots
4 cups filtered water
- To make a cold infusion, put the dried herbs in the jar, pour in fresh room temperature water, and then allow to sit for at least 4 hours and up to 12 or so.
- To drink, strain out the roots and sip either cold or warmed.
1). de la Forêt, R. (n.d.). The Marshmallow Herb.