Marshmallow: The Great Moistener

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Marshmallow, or Althea officinalis, is in my opinion one of the most important remedies to get acquainted with, as it’s one of our best demulcent remedies. While Althea derives from the Greek altho and means to cure, its family, the Malvaceae, is from the Greek word malake, which means soft. With these two simple words, you know almost everything about Marshmallow’s key signature and how its softening and moistening effects impact the body and mind. 

In today’s blog post, you’ll learn:

  • The importance of the sweet taste in herbalism and what it does in the body
  • Marshmallows’ unique influences on the mucosal membranes in the respiratory, digestive, genitourinary, and reproductive systems
  • The emotional indications of Marshmallow
  • How this plant is the quintessential remedy ruled by the Moon
  • The best (and worst) ways to extract Marshmallow
  • A simple and effective formula you can make yourself
Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)

Marshmallow is often known as the sticky confection you burn over campfires, but are you familiar with the lesser-known Marshmallow plant?

Although marshmallows were historically made with this plant, today the name is merely an echo of its past. The medicinal application of Marshmallow dates back to the 9th century BCE and has been used in European and Greek traditional medicine for over 2000 years! 

Marshmallow is the quintessential demulcent herb in the Western Materia Medica, and this property translates into every way that it impacts the body and mind. Moreover, it is the perfect example of how a plant’s growing conditions and morphology can reflect its internal applications. 

Common name: Marshmallow 

Latin name: Althaea officinalis

Family: Malvaceae  

Tastes: Sweet

Affinities: Mucosal membranes 

Actions: Demulcent (laxative, expectorant, diuretic), Emollient, Inflammation Modulating, Immune Modulating 

Energetics: Slightly cooling, moistening

Taste

Marshmallow is one of the best depictions in the Western Materia Medica of a sweet-tasting herb. The concept of the sweet taste often conjures images of sugar and candy. However, in herbal medicine, the sweet taste signifies the presence of carbohydrates in a plant. For example, rice, potatoes, and other root vegetables are classified as sweet because of their high carbohydrate content. 

According to Ayurveda, the sweet flavor comprises the Earth and Water Elements. Herbs with this flavor are used to rebuild, replenish, and restore tissues that have become weak and atrophied due to excess dryness and malnourishment. The earthen aspect of Marshmallow grants it its rejuvenating and nourishing quality, while its moistening property corresponds to the Water Element.

Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)

Affinities 

Marshmallow’s core affinity is the mucosal membranes. These tissues are unique in that they line all organ systems exposed to the outside world, this includes the respiratory, digestive, and urinary tracts, as well as the reproductive system. 

The mucosal membrane tissue protects the body from invading pathogens by coating these organ systems with immunological component rich mucus. This substance traps foreign substances and prevents them from entering the body. When these tissues become overly dry, they can become more prone to pathogenic invasion and infection. 

So while many resources will note Marshmallow has an affinity for the lungs, urinary tract, and intestines, the core affinity is simply the mucosa. And because of the unique influence upon that mucosa, we’ll see it having an influence upon immunity, since these surface protectant mucosa are an integral part of the immune system. 

“The root of Marshmallow is demulcent and diuretic, and will be found valuable in diseases of the mucous tissues, as hoarseness, catarrh, pneumonia, gonorrhoea, vesical catarrh, renal irritation, acute dysentery, and diarrhoea. In strangury, inflammation of the bladder, hematuria, retention of urine, some forms of gravel, and indeed in nearly every affection of the kidney and bladder, their use will be found advantageous. Much use is made of Marshmallow in urinary derangements. They are likewise efficacious in gastro-intestinal irritation and inflammation.” ~ King’s Dispensatory

Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)

Actions 

Marshmallow is a top-tier demulcent herb as it hydrates overly dry tissues through its constituents known as mucilaginous polysaccharides. This is its core action as a demulcent. These compounds are essentially long-chain sugar molecules that bind with water to produce mucilage. This mucilage hydrates dry and irritated tissue linings aggravated by heat and inflammation. Because the body is prone to heat conditions when it is overly dry, Marshmallow solves the problem at the root and alleviates symptoms by hydrating the tissues. A specific pattern that Marshmallow root is used for is yin deficiency. Chinese medicine describes this pattern as heat arising from excess dryness instead of “true heat.”

Marshmallow’s demulcent property leads to other actions, such as its inflammation-modulating and immune-modulating effects. Since the body responds to Marshmallow as an antigen once it reaches the gut, this herb stimulates the immune system while lowering inflammation by sedating heat in the tissues. 

As Marshmallow moistens the mucosal membranes of each of these systems, it leads to secondary actions that are unique to each. Marshmallows’ demulcent property produces an expectorant quality in the respiratory system, diuretic action in the genitourinary system, and laxative effect in the digestive system. Again, its common to see these actions noted in Marshmallow monographs, and while they are true, it is critically important to understand that they are a result of its core demulcent action.

Lastly, Marshmallow is emollient. While some herbalists define this as a topical demulcent, such as Aloe (Aloe vera) on a burn, emollients are herbs that soften hardness. This quality goes hand in hand with its demulcent property since it softens tissues that have contracted and hardened from excess dryness. It is important to remember that these actions do not occur in isolation. If you had a cough that you wanted to alleviate and opened up an herbal book you may find Marshmallow listed as an expectorant. However, it is a moistening and demulcent expectorant. This means that while it can help with dry hacking coughs, it can make a cold and wet cough even worse. It is essential that you understand the energetics behind a plant before you use it. By doing so, you can ascertain whether or not a plant is compatible for your constitutional pattern and whether it is the correct remedy for you.

Energetics

Marshmallow is a quintessential moistening herb. It is slightly cooling and sedates heat and inflammation, but it is not cool enough to cause constitutional coldness. This herb is neutral in tone- neither relaxing nor tonifying. From the Ayurvedic perspective, Marshmallow decreases vata with its moistening and softening properties. It also decreases excess pitta with its ability to sedate heat and moisten the tissues to balance yin deficiency (vata). Marshmallow is contraindicated for kapha since it can elevate the already damp and cold nature of this constitution. 

Marshmallow balances the dry/atrophy and heat/excitation tissue states. With dry/atrophy, its demulcent and emollient properties moisten, hydrate, and soften dried tissue that has lost functionality. By rejuvenating the dry tissues, Marshmallow decreases the heat and inflammation that often ensues, thereby balancing heat/excitation. This herb is particularly helpful for excess heat in the upper GI, such as problems with the esophagus like acid reflux, burning, and ulceration.

Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)

Psychological and Emotional Aspects 

Aside from its physical medicine, the moistening and softening attributes of Marshmallow ripple into its psychological and emotional aspects. There is a distinct softness and tenderness to this plant. From feeling the soft leaves to looking at the delicate flowers, Marshmallow exudes a gentle energy. Just as it softens hardness in the tissues, Marshmallow softens a hardened mind and heart. This herb is an excellent remedy if you are feeling emotionally stuck, rigid, and depleted. Additionally, it can help you process and express difficult emotions when you are feeling too exhausted to do so. In short, it instills a degree of gentleness for the person that has become emotionally “hard” and shut down.

Alchemical Correspondences

Marshmallow is the archetypal lunar remedy in my opinion. Morphologically, the silvery coloration to the underside of the leaf, milky white and slight purple coloration to the flower, overall soft texture, and affinity for moist environments are classic lunar remedy traits. 

Since the Moon rules secretions, moisture, and overall hydration, Marshmallow’s cooling, moistening, demulcent, and emollient effects on the mucosal membranes correspond to this planet as well. The Moon improves your body’s ability to receive nutrients and by hydrating the tissues and improving their functionality, Marshmallow does this too. The Moon is the archetype of the Mother, and thus embodies a nurturing, gentle, and nourishing quality. 

Elementally, Marshmallow is ruled by water. You can see this correspondence through its actions on the mucosa, urinary tract, reproductive system, moistening effects, and even its preferred menstruum for medicine making: Water.

Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)

Growing Marshmallow  

Marshmallow is a hardy herb native to Europe that you can grow from seeds or root cuttings. If you want to grow Marshmallow using seeds, gently rub them on sandpaper before you plant them to open up the outer membrane and facilitate germination. Alternatively, you can plant the root cuttings to speed things up. The best time to plant Marshmallow is in the cold and early spring. 

This plant thrives in moist environments and grows well in swampy and boggy environments. If neither of these options works for you, rest assured that Marshmallow grows well in full sun as well. With its soft and tender leaves and flowers, Marshmallow is a sensory delight. Because Marshmallow is in the mallow family, the flowers are like hollyhocks with a milky white to light purple hue. The leaves, flowers, and roots of Marshmallow are all medicinal, and you can use them in different parts of their growth cycles to make medicine, though the root is considered the primary part used. 

Once the plant is in flower you can pick the flowers and leaves to make medicine. Our experience is usually just picking a few flowers, placing them in water for a slightly demulcent, mucilaginous, cooling infusion (made with room temperature water).  However, if you are interested in using the root, you should wait 2-3 years for the plant to mature. The best time to dig up the roots is in the fall after the plant has died back or in the early spring before all the energy is focused on growing up and out.. If you prefer the dried root instead of fresh, make sure to use a dehydrator to prevent molding. Although many herbs can be left out to dry organically, the mucilage in the roots can lengthen this process.

Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)

Preparation

Whether you are using Marshmallow flowers, leaves, or roots- this plant loves water. Although infusions are typically made with hot water, the best way to prepare Marshmallow is with a cold water infusion. To do so, take one tablespoon of the dried root and place it in a jar with eight ounces of water. Let this sit for four hours or overnight before you strain and drink. Because the mucilage will be thick, you will need to pour the mixture into a cheesecloth or almond milk bag and squeeze to strain it effectively. If you need Marshmallow immediately, such as for acid reflux, you can stir one teaspoon of the root powder into one cup of water and drink for almost instant relief. 

Marshmallow does not tincture well because of its mucilaginous compounds, which are only soluble in water. To be more precise, these constituents are hydrated in water, as they don’t exactly dissolve in water. If you prepare an alcohol-based medicine with it, the mixture will coagulate and be particularly messy. Because Marshmallow’s key characteristic is moisture, it makes sense intuitively and practically to prepare it with water and to drink it as such. Something to keep in mind is that plants high in mucilage can inhibit the uptake of other nutrients of medications in the GI. Therefore, it is advised that you drink Marshmallow three hours before or after taking pharmaceuticals or supplements. 

Marshmallow is an excellent herb to work with if you are new to herbalism. Its taste is relatively simple, and all of its actions, energetics, and organ affinities work together in a simple yet wondrous harmony. From ancient Egypt until today, Marshmallow is a treasured herbal remedy ready to provide you with healing. 

Formula 

Moistening Demulcent Pair

80% Marshmallow (Althea officinalis)
 

20% Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)

This pair can be used to moisten any kind of dry/atrophic or depleted conditions and is best prepared using powders mixed in a small amount of water or as a tea. Since Licorice yields better results when made into a hot infusion, you should prepare this part first and then stir in the Marshmallow once it has sufficiently cooled. This formula is beneficial for hot dry irritable coughs, acid reflux, and inflammations of the GI tract.

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