MARSHMALLOW
Common Names

Marsh Mallow Root , Marshmallow, Wymote
Botanical Name
Althaea officinalis
Family
MALVACEAE ~ Mallow Family

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What is it?

The roots of Marshmallow, a plant that gets its name from its liking to grow in marshy, watery soil. Everything about marshmallow is the opposite of dry or brittle, it is marvellously soft, moist and pliable.


FLOWER


PLANT


DRIED

How has it been used?

The uses of Marshmallow have been carefully described in European herbal literature for over 2000 years. Its soothing and healing effects have been an integral part of treatment for conditions such as gastritis, peptic ulcers, gastro-oesophageal reflux, hiatal hernias, cystitis, renal colic from kidney stones, painful coughs and bronchial spasm and tension.

The Roman physician Pliny loved Marshmallow and wrote that 'whosoever shall take a spoonful of the mallows shall that day be free of diseases'.

Early Arab physicians used Marshmallow poultices to treat inflammations and early European doctors used Marshmallow internally and externally for its soothing action in treating toothache, sore throats, digestive upsets and urinary irritations.

Marshmallow was also a special favourite of the great English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper, he wrote 'you may remember not long ago there was a raging disease called the body flux, the college of physicians not knowing what to make of it. My son was taken with it and the only thing I gave him was Mallows bruised and boiled in milk and drunk. In two days, the blessing of God be upon it, it cured him'. Culpeper rated Marshmallow highly for 'shortness of breath, wheezing, cramps, torments of the belly and other diseases of the chest'

Poultices or ointments of Marshmallow have been applied externally to new open wounds as well as over boils, abscesses, ulcers and old wounds to draw unwanted matter to the surface to be expelled from the body.

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Science on Marshmallow

~ Marshmallow contains large amounts of acidic polysaccharides that form mucilage and it is this substance that accounts for much of its soothing, anti-inflammatory effects. In an experimental model it was demonstrated that Marshmallow extracts significantly reduced the cough reflex showing that soothing the gastro-intestinal tract causes a reflex soothing of the respiratory tract (Nosal'ova G et al: Pharmazie 47:224-226, 1992)

Mucilaginous herbs like marshmallow root may inhibit coughing by forming a protective coating on the mucosal lining of the respiratory tract, shielding it from irritants. Marshmallow reduces the transport velocity of isolated ciliary epithelia and may protect mucous layers in the hypopharynx, exert spasmolytic, antisecretory, and bactericidal properties. Antitussive activity has been demonstrated by oral doses of marshmallow root extract and a marshmallow polysaccharide (Muller-Limmroth, W. and Frohlich, H. H. [Effect of various phytotherapeutic expectorants on mucociliary transport]. Fortschr Med 1-24-1980;98(3):95-101)

~ In one experiment Marshmallow enhanced the ability of white blood cells to engulf disease microbes (phagocytosis) which strongly suggests that its traditional use in wound healing and gut infections is more than just a soothing local effect (Recio MC and et al. Antimicrobial activity of selected plants employed in the Spanish Mediterranean area, Part II. Phytother Res 1989;3:77-80)

~ In 1966, Beaune et al. conducted an experimental study and found that the anti-inflammatory properties of marshmallow alone were superior to dexamethasone (Beaune, A. and Balea, T. [Anti-inflammatory experimental properties of marshmallow: its potentiating action on the local effects of corticoids]. Therapie 1966;21(2):341-347)

Safety of Marshmallow

No adverse effects are expected (or have ever been reported) from taking Marshmallow in tea or tincture, even in high or frequent doses. It may be confidently taken during pregnancy or whilst breastfeeding and used by the young or old with safety.

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Personal experiences

I like the surprise on my young patient's faces when I tell them I am going to put some Marshmallow extract into their medicine. I suppose they must think I am putting lollies in it and I guess it won't hurt them to have a little positive expectation and as the tincture that we make from dried Marshmallow root in our clinic is really quite remarkably sweet and syrupy they're not far wrong!

If you who are reading this are studying herbal medicine or if you just have your own reasons to want to know this plant ally at a much deeper level then I warmly recommend you obtain and take some Marshmallow medicine by just putting a tsp or two of the root in some cold water for a few hours to get a certain introduction to it! Alternately you can do the same experiment with a tsp of its tincture. In either case take a good dose of Marshmallow and then, with a quiet and attentive mind, observe for yourself and see how it makes you feel and what your body makes of its 'action'. I would predict that if you are a dry constitution (more about what that means here) of indeed if you have some inflammation or irritation in your body in the present, then you will find it to be a most welcome visitor!

Marshmallow soothes and comforts the dry, red, sore parts like nothing else. It can be like a warm soft bandage to an aching sore, instantly soothing! On the other hand if you are quite a damp constitution or really have no need for its influence then you might find it rather unpleasantly moist and syrupy! This ancient way of experientially learning about herbs has great value today, even with a great deal of written information to hand. I think it will better help you to know when and how to use it than that which an abstract understanding could bring...

Aside from its direct actions on sore, infected or inflamed tissues Marshmallow can also be used as a constitutional medicine for people who have too much ‘dryness’.

I will often include some Marshmallow when I think a person's constitutional balance has gone too far to the 'dry'. This might show up as a dry skin or tongue or sometimes the dryness is present in the symptoms themselves, a cough that has no practical use, broken or cracked skin, signs for a 'leaky gut' where there are cracks and micro-tears in the digestive tract. With patient use over days if not weeks it can be seen that Marshmallow has an uncanny ability to bring ‘moisture’ back into such dry conditions.

In terms of how I personally use it I do favour the pleasant and potent tincture we make at 1:8 plant to 25% ethanol/ water that we then add 20% Glycerine after pressing. In terms of dose this can be taken quite freely as required, a tsp up to 5 or 6 times a day will not cause any harm if there is an acute need.

Knowing that heat will damage the healing constituents in the Marshmallow another excellent way to harness its benefits is to place a few tsps of the cut root into a cup of cold water and allow it to steep for a few hours until the water has extracted the 'softness' of the herb (or to go to a super-strong level fill about 1/5 of a jar with the root then cover with water and seal overnight). The resulting ‘tea’ in either case is remarkably slippery and not something people might easily be able to drink without some practice but if a condition is critically dry then this can be a particularly effective and economic method.

Marshmallow combines perfectly with Licorice for any kind of dry or depleted condition, with Elecampane for weak lungs and old coughs and with Wild Cherry for dry and exhausting coughs.

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Marshmallow poultice

I use a lot of Marshmallow extract in creams that we make ourselves for people with dry or damaged skin but if the skin is badly damaged or open you can also get great healing from using a Marshmallow poultice.

Poultices are made by mashing the herb and soaking it in enough water to moisten the herb into a pliable 'putty'. You then place the whole product, herb and water combined, on to a cloth which is then placed directly over the affected wound or skin problem and then you cover that further with a towel or cloth to hold everything in place. This may be left on as long as necessary, even overnight if it can be bandaged in place. I highly recommend using some 'glad-wrap' (cling film) to hold the poultice in place if you need to keep it on for a while.

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Constitutional note

Much of the information here about the traditional uses of Marshmallow is consistent with the model of thinking whereby one may treat problem A with plant B. There is value in this approach, especially in how it helps us pass on useful knowledge to one another, but it falls short in one vital area; and that is that people are not all cut from the same cloth! Something that works brilliantly for one person may do less for another -- why is this?

The reason is that people vary in their constitutions as to whether they are more hot or cool and at the same time more dry or damp; more info about this here. There is an old wisdom in treating the person first and the condition second and in this light Marshmallow can particularly offer its benefits when a relaxing action is needed in the 'cycle of healing' - something that is discussed here and shown in a chart here.

Excerpt from Felter & Lloyd's Kings Dispensatory from 1898

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.

Externally, marshmallow root is very useful in the form of poultice, to discuss painful, inflammatory tumors, and swellings of every kind, whether the consequence of wounds, bruises, burns, scalds, or poisons; and has, when thus applied, had a happy effect in preventing the occurrence of gangrene. The infusion or decoction may be freely administered.

Please understand that I cannot personally advise you, including on products or dosage, without seeing you in my clinic but ideas on how you might find a good herbalist in your area are here.
This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!

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© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd