Those super sweet treats that we all associate with hot chocolate and campfires got their name from the plant they were originally made from – marshmallow. Marshmallow (Althea officinalis) is a tall perennial plant with pink flowers that is native to Africa but now found growing in other parts of the world. Its roots have been used as a food and medicine for thousands of years and are extremely high in mucilage, or a thick and slimy substance that is extracted with water (think okra, a relative that also has a high mucilage content).
As a food, the leaves and young aerial parts were often used as a nutritious green in its native region. Marshmallow root has a natural sweetness. This, combined with its mucilage, meant it was often used to thicken deserts and other sweet dishes. The confection we now know as “marshmallows” probably arose more for its medicinal purposes than as a food. As far back as Egyptian times, a honey-sweetened food made from the root was used to soothe sore throats. What we call marshmallows today were originally made in France from the root of the marshmallow plant. While popular, they were labor intensive to make and eventually the marshmallow root was replaced by gelatin and egg whites to get the same consistency.
Marshmallow’s scientific name, Althea, comes from the Greek “althos,” which means healer. In ancient times, it was revered for its healing properties and used to to soothe many internal and external ailments. Today, the root is still used for its soothing properties. This includes for sore throat, gastric and digestive upset, and any hot and inflamed conditions, especially those affecting the mucus membranes. Externally, it helps support wound healing and cools and soothes sunburn, bug bites, and skin eruptions. Research is investigating marshmallow’s ability to soothe irritated mucus membranes, its usefulness in easing asthma, and the properties of the leaf (Deters et al., 2010; Alani et al., 2015; Razaei et al., 2015).
Next time you have a craving for marshmallows, try making some old fashioned real marshmallows. You don’t have to feel guilty because these are good for you too!
Homemade Marshmallows with Marshmallow Root
- 4 tablespoons of grass-fed gelatin
- 1 cup of water
- 1 tablespoon of powdered marshmallow root
- 1 cup of honey
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- A pinch of salt
- In a small saucepan, bring the water to boil.
- Add the marshmallow root and stir with a whisk and reduce to a simmer.
- Allow to simmer for about 5 minutes.
- Remove from heat and place in the refrigerator until it cools.
- Once cool, strain through a fine sieve into a bowl. If needed, add more water until it measures 1 cup.
- Set aside half this mixture into another bowl and add the gelatin, stirring until dissolved.
- Take the other half of the mixture and place in a saucepan.
- Add the honey, vanilla and salt. Bring to a simmer.
- Using a candy thermometer, heat until the mixture reaches around 240° and then remove from heat.
- Slowly add to the gelatin mixture, slowly blending with a hand mixer on low at the same time.
- Once combined continue to blend on high for another 10 minutes, until it forms a marshmallow cream consistency with peaks.
- Pour mixture into an 8×8 pan lined with parchment paper.
- Set aside and let firm.
- When firm slice with a knife to the desired size.
Alani B, Zare M, Noureddini M. (2015) Broncodilatory and B-adrenergic effects of methanolic and aqueous extracts of Althea root on isolated tracheobronchial smooth rat muscle, Advanced Biomedical Research, 4:78.
Deters A., Zippel J, Hellenbrand N, Pappai D, Possemeyer C, Hensel A. (2010) Aqueous extracts and polysaccharides from Marshmallow roots (Althea officinalis L.): cellular internalization and stimulation of cell physiology of human epithelial cells in vitro. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 127:1, 62-9.
Rezaei M, Dadgar Z, Noori-Zadeh A, Mesbah-Namin SA, Pakzad I, Davodian E. (2015) Evaluation of the antibacterial activity of the Althea officinalis L. leaf extract and its wound healing potency in the rat model of excision wound creation, Avicenna Journal of Phytomedicine, 5:2, 105-12.
Writer Erin Smith has been working with plants for 25 years and is medical herbalist and ethnobotanist. She is the creator of Plant-Passionate Living™, an interactive program designed to help people find greater health and vitality through a deeper relationship with plants. Erin is the Founder and Director of the Center for Integrative Botanical Studies.