Chris Marano of Clearpath Herbals shares about marshmallow root benefits in this video from the Clearpath Medicine Garden
Today we are looking at marshmallow root benefits. Marshmallow (Althea officinalis) is a naturalized perennial that likes to grow in damp areas. In our medicine garden we plant marshmallow and sweetgrass near each other in the wettest part of the garden because they both like dampness and these areas allow them to establish quickly. This is their happiest place.
The medicine of marshmallow runs throughout the entirety of the plant. In the video below you can see this lovely plant in its prime. Notice the beauty of the flowers. If you were here right now, we’d be picking off one to smell and taste.
Everything about this plant is soft to the touch and whitish to the eye. Marshmallow leaf feels very soft, even softer than mullein. If you flip the leaf over, you will notice its whitish hue, and the flowers are predominantly white as well, with a pale pink undertone. If we travel down the stem, we notice again that it has a whitish undertone, and is also soft to the touch.
The flowers are very soft and delicate. If you chew one, it practically melts in your mouth, The flavor is bland to slightly sweet and the texture is mucilaginous. If you were to chew a leaf, it would start off feeling cotton-y in the mouth, but it too would quickly turn to a mucilaginous, slimy goop. The slime is the medicine, and it is found predominantly in the root.
Marshmallow root benefits to understand
The root is the medicine that we would be taking. Of course, you can’t see it under the ground, and we are not gathering it now during high summer. The time to pick root medicine for maximum potency is in the fall or the spring. The preferred age to gather the root is three-to-four-year-old plants. You will discover that it is large and quite mucilaginous.
After we dig up and thoroughly wash and clean the roots, we cut it into smaller pieces and dry it, and then use it for water preparations and alcohol preparations. It would be a bit of a stretch to call a decoction of marshmallow a cup of tea. It is more akin to a bowl of thick, goopy gruel. If anybody’s ever had slippery elm root, you know that when you mix it with the hot water it immediately starts to gel up, becoming a gelatinous concoction that you can eat as easily with a spoon as you can drink it from a cup. You can, of course, vary the thickness of the preparation by the amount of water and root you use. I encourage you to have fun and experiment until you find your desired consistency.
Most herbalists these days are choosing marshmallow root over slippery elm bark. Why? Members of the elm tree family are seriously threatened because of Dutch Elm disease, which has been devastating native elm species in North America for a hundred years. Furthermore, stripping bark from a tree is injurious to the tree; and if you are not careful you might girdle the tree — stripping the bark from the tree completely around its circumference — which effectively kills the tree.
I can harvest marshmallow root medicine with no threat to the species, and it provides the majority of the medicine that I would be hoping to derive from slippery elm bark. Marshmallow grows quickly, can easily be regrown, and spreads on its own, so it is a more ecological and sustainable choice than slippery elm.
Marshmallow root benefits: Marshmallow root is very nutritious. It’s mucilaginous, meaning that it is loaded with starches and other polysaccharides, known chemically as long-chain carbohydrates. In addition to being deep and easily-assimilated nutrition, many polysaccharides are also profoundly healing, protecting and soothing to mucous membrane tissues. These are some of the major marshmallow root benefits.
Marshmallow root benefits and the doctrine of signatures
The whitish coloration is an indication that the plant has an affinity for helping mucus membrane tissue, which is what comprises the respiratory system (sinuses, lungs, throat), digestive system (mouth, stomach, intestines, colon) and genito-urinary system (kidney, bladder, urethra, uterus). I use marshmallow root to help all three of these organ-systems, especially when the person’s mucus membranes are inflamed, dried out, or appearing weak in their function.
You can also apply marshmallow lotion preparations topically as an emollient to help moisturize, protect and heal skin, but in my opinion it works even better internally, benefiting the mucosa (“inner skin”) of the intestines, lungs and the urinary system. I use it if a client is showing signs of inflammation… any of the “itis-es”: bronchitis, sinusitis, gastritis, colitis, urethritis, cystitis, etc. You can use marshmallow anywhere and anytime mucus membranes are irritated and inflamed or desiccated and weak (atrophied).
Marshmallow is best prepared as a long, cool water-based infusion. This means adding and stirring cut-and-sifted (or powdered) root to room-temperature water and allowing the concoction to steep for several hours or overnight. This is the best way to extract and preserve the polysaccharide medicine. You can also make a faster and more traditional hot-water decoction by steadily stirring the mixture as it simmers over low heat until you get the desired consistency. This is much quicker, but some herbalists say it is also more damaging to the chemical integrity of the polysaccharides. I also make a low-concentration alcohol tincture of marshmallow root, and although some herbalists say that alcohol is destructive to polysaccharides, I find it to be effective in formulas and it continues to retain its mucilaginous character.
Marshmallow root benefits and other forms of consumption
Although not as commonly used (or tasty) as slippery elm bark in food recipes, you can also add marshmallow root powder to soup stocks, gumbos and hot cereal to add more texture and sliminess to the consistency.
The flowers are also edible. You can add them as a garnish to a raw garden salad to make it more festive-looking and to add a different texture and taste. The leaves are also edible when younger, but I would add them to soup where you don’t mind them getting a little goopier, like a gumbo.
Like I said earlier, because it is a perennial plant and grows and spreads easily, I am not worried about threatening this species. Using marshmallow is a great way of taking pressure off of the demand for slippery elm. Marshmallow is also an excellent honeybee and native bee attractor.
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