Marshmallow root is the subterranean part of Althea officinalis that produces a gummy substance (mucilage) that when ingested coats the inside of the throat, stomach, and digestive tract. It can also be applied to the exterior of the body, like the skin or lips, to help support the tone, texture, color, and comfort of skin. The Romans, Chinese, and Middle Eastern cultures have all used marshmallow root to support respiratory health, throat, digestive system, abdominal comfort, and the skin. (1) Marshmallow root was also once an important ingredient in the puffy white confectionery that today is essential to making s’mores and many other treats.
What is the Marshmallow Plant
Marshmallow is a perennial species of flowering plants that belong to the genus Althaea. (2) The word Althaea comes from the Greek word Altho, meaning “to cure.” Marshmallow belongs to the order of plants known as Malvaceae, also from Greek, meaning “soft.” Both words describe the use of the plant as an herbal remedy, specifically related to skin health and the feeling of stiffness or discomforts in the interior of the body.
Marshmallow is native to Europe, part of Western Asia, and North Africa. (3) It grows to 2 to 5 feet in height and appears with leaves that have a velvet feel. The leaves are irregular with serrated edges. The flowers form small clusters and are either auxiliary, meaning they grow from the shoot of the leaf, or off the ends of branches. (4) The flowers have six heart-shaped petals. The petals are frequently pale in color, with a primary color of white or pink and a deep reddish-hue at the base of the leaf around the stamen. The roots are thick, long, and tapered at the ends. The roots are strong but also pliable (bendable), have a whitish-yellow color, and are white and fibrous on the inside.
How to Grow Marshmallow
The marshmallow plant reproduces when bees transport pollen to the flowers between July and September. (5) It prefers to grow in sunny, cool environments at the edge of marshlands and grassy banks. It grows wild in southern areas of Canada, 15 U.S. states from New York down to Virginia, and west to Arkansas and up to North Dakota. Marshmallow is also found throughout Europe and western regions of Asia.
Marshmallow is similar to hollyhock, a species in the mallow family of plants. The ideal way of growing marshmallow in a garden is by starting from a root cutting. In the fall or before the spring, when the plant is still hibernating, remove a whole section of the root and replant it in a damp spot with plenty of sun. Only remove a section of the root after the second year of growth.
If starting from seeds, they will need to be stored in a cold and damp location prior to winter so that they will germinate in the spring, grow and blossom during the following summer to survive through the next winter. Remove weeds from the surrounding area and keep the ground mulched to protect the root structure. It will only need to be watered when the rest of the garden is watered. If it does not bloom the first year, expect flowers during the second year.
Seeds purchased at the store in the spring may only require a shorter period of cold storage or none at all. If they do need stratified, put them in a ziplock bag with damp sand for 24 hours and leave them undisturbed, then move them to the fridge for up to 6 weeks or when germination occurs. Next, move the seeds to pots with prepared soil and cover them with a plastic dome to prevent evaporation. Once the sprouts have the first set of full leaves move them to a permanent location in the garden, with 1 foot of distance between each growth.
History of the Marshmallow Plant
Many cultures have used marshmallow root to support the health of their people, but it was the Egyptians who first ground the roots into a paste and added honey and grains, then baked it into a cake. (6)
In the 1800s, French shop owners added marshmallow sap to egg whites and sugar to create a fluffy confectionary, but this process took too much time, and the marshmallows didn’t last very long. Around the 1900s the adoption of gelatin and cornstarch made it easier to create the long lasting and fluffy marshmallow most often found in the candy or baking isles of grocery stores. The s’more, a condensed way of saying “gimme some more,” is a combination of graham crackers, chocolate, and marshmallow cooked over a heat source, such as a campfire, is believed to have been invented by the Girl Scouts in 1927. The marshmallow made with marshmallow root can still be purchased or made at home.
Marshmallow Root Benefits
A study that compared the protective effects of marshmallow root and astragalus extracts on healthy skin cells exposed to ultraviolet radiation found positive results. (7) Marshmallow root was found to reduce UVA-induced genotoxicity and DNA damage in skin cells and skin fibroblasts. Astragalus only reduced UVA-induced damage to skin fibroblasts. The researchers write that the extracts may help to prevent “photoaging and potential skin carcinogenesis, and the inclusion of such compounds in formulations designed to protect the skin may prove to be beneficial with further investigations.”
Another study examining the antibacterial activity and wound repair potential of marshmallow root found positive results. (8) When compared to ciprofloxacin, gentamicin, and penicillin antibiotics on pathogenic bacteria such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus, and Listeria monocytogenes, marshmallow root was effective in disrupting the growth of bacteria up to 99% in some cases. Marshmallow root was also shown to help wounds epithelized (when the skin rejoins) faster when compared to the group that did not receive an external application of the herb.
To determine the potential medicinal benefits of ginger and marshmallow extract on peptic ulcers, researchers evaluated five groups, three being treated with either famotidine, ginger, and marshmallow, and two control groups, one without ulcers and one not treated for ulcers. (9) In the group that received marshmallow root, the number of ulcers did not change, but the incidence of ulceration was reduced or prevented entirely. Additionally, the marshmallow root accomplished this without affecting the antioxidant glutathione or nitric oxide production in the stomach tissue. The research notes that “the anti-ulcer effect of marshmallow could be attributed to the reduction of oxidative stress and histamine release. The gastroprotective effect of marshmallow observed could be attributed to active compounds found in the extract such as flavonoids and mucilage polysaccharides.”
A primary chemical constituent of marshmallow root, polysaccharide, has been shown to support irritated mucous membranes and the development of new cells. (10) The extracts of marshmallow root were shown to help stimulate cell viability, vitality, and healthy proliferation by forming a bioadhesive layer to cell surfaces, and affecting cell adhesion proteins, growth regulators, the extracellular matrix, cytokine release, and apoptosis.
Marshmallow Root Dosage, Warnings, and Interactions
There is no established safe dosage of marshmallow root. (11) Supplements can contain dosage amounts ranging from under 100 mg to over 1,000 mg. Historically, doses of 6,000 mg of the leaf were given to help reduce coughing and aid with bronchitis; but this has not been clinically validated as effective. Doses of the root can vary, with each supplements suggesting support for systems of a healthy body. Individual results may vary. Consult with a primary care physician if breathing difficulties or discomfort occur before, during, or after use of marshmallow root.
Marshmallow root may interact with other drugs or therapies, so if changes to health occur immediately contact a primary care physician. Pregnant women should not use marshmallow root, and it should never be given to children unless under the supervision of a primary care physician.
Marshmallow Root Supplements
Marshmallow root is available in capsules, tinctures, liquids, tablets, herbal blends, and tea. For best results, consult with a primary care physician before starting any supplement regimen, and follow the manufacturer dosing guidelines and warnings.
Marshmallow Root Tea
Marshmallow root tea can be made with around 1 tablespoon of cut and sifted marshmallow root added to 1.5 cups of water. Bring the water and marshmallow root to a boil, cover and simmer on low for 20 minutes. Then remove from heat, strain the root material, and add milk or a sweetener if desired. (12) Prepared marshmallow root tea bags are also available; follow the instructions on the packaging for best results.
To make a cold infusion marshmallow root drink, fill a jar with ¼ water and fill the rest with cut and sifted marshmallow root. Add water to fill any remaining space. Let this sit for up to 12 hours, then strain.
Making marshmallow with marshmallow root is possible with just a few ingredients: (13)
- ½ cup rose hydrosol (for extra flavor)
- ½ cup water
- 1 tablespoon marshmallow root powder
- 1-2 tablespoons of hibiscus flowers (to make the flowers pink)
- 1 cup honey
- 1 cup unflavored gelatin
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- Pinch of salt
- Hand mixer
- 8x8” pan
- Parchment paper
- Candy thermometer
- Mesh sieve
Bring the water and rose hydrosol to a boil in the saucepan, then add the marshmallow root and hibiscus flower, and whisk everything and simmer for 5 minutes. Place the mixture in the fridge to cool. Then strain the marshmallow and hibiscus through a mesh sieve before adding 1 cup water.
Separate this mixture equally into 2 bowls. In one bowl add gelatin then set it aside. In the second bowl add the mixture to a saucepan along with the honey, vanilla extract, and salt. Simmer until it reaches 240 degrees then remove from heat. Begin mixing the first bowel with gelatin into the hot mixture. Continue whisking for up to 10 minutes.
Pour the mixture into the 8x8 pan lined with parchment paper that has been oiled. Let this sit for a few hours until it becomes firm. Slice with a knife and roll in powdered sugar to reduce stickiness. These can be used in place of store bought marshmallows for most any recipe.
Shopping for Marshmallow Root
The NHC.com store carries a wide variety of brands that are known to follow Good Manufacturing Practices, use third party testing for quality and purity, or use ingredients made or grown in the USA. Experience marshmallow root and see if it makes a difference in your life.