Marshmallow or Althaea officinalis is a perennial and cousin of the hollyhock. It grows large, bee-pollinated, white flowers from July to September, followed by seedpods that ripen from August to October. You’ll find it growing wild in sunny but cool places on the edges of marshland and on grassy banks along lakes and watercourses.
Plant marshmallow in wild area of the garden and where you will enjoy its soft hairy maple-like leaves, and 90cm tall stalks topped with flowers. The blooms sport five heart-shaped petals, which are noticeable when swaying gently in the breeze in summer
The flowers, leaves and roots are all edible and they are beneficial for treating so many ailments from stomach upset, constipation and even bruises, cuts, and scrapes. Marshmallow leaves can also be used in remedies for bronchitis, respiratory catarrh and irritating coughs. Externally, the root is a good poultice for varicose veins and ulcers as well as abscesses and boils.
And… according to beauty expert Angela Lopez of Belle-Toi in Bournemouth (angelasbelletoi.com), it can be used in beauty products too. The roots when mixed with water, form a gel-like substance, which according to Angela, can be used to soften and moisturize the skin and also chapped, dry lips. Infusions from this plant have a silky texture that soothes sensitive skin and may even help smooth out the wrinkles on aging skin. Plus, due to the fact that it contains plant proteins, it’s thought to promote healthy hair growth, while helping to soothe an inflamed scalp.
Marshmallow grows from root divisions or cuttings. Cuttings root easily in summer, if the ground is kept damp. Alternatively divide the root in autumn, after the plant dies down, or in the spring before the succulent growth comes up.
Marshmallow can also be grown from seed, however the seeds need to be stratified by exposing them to cold, damp conditions. Do this by mixing the seeds with damp sand and put them in a sealed bag and leave undisturbed for 24 hours. This will allow the seeds to swell. Then place the bag in the refrigerator for 4 to 6 weeks. Check the seeds for signs of growth after a month. When you notice germination, remove the seeds from the fridge and plant them in pots of John Innes compost. If your season is short, expect flowers in the second year.
In the garden plant the seedlings 30cm apart in rows at the back of a border. Mulch well to discourage weeds and hold in soil moisture. Marshmallow flowers bring into the garden painted lady butterflies, as well as native pollinators, which cover its blossoms in summer. The blooms are mostly white but can be bluish-white or mauve. Keep plants well watered and well weeded the first year to allow them to become established. You can begin harvesting roots in the second autumn after a spring planting.
Make marshmallow sweets treats
The roots of this herb contain mucilage, which was originally used to thicken marshmallows, although these days gelatine is commercially used instead. Toasting marshmallows over the fire makes the sugar caramelize, giving it a nutty, buttery sweet flavour
To make marshmallow simply whip up egg white and sugar and add to a boiled mixture of 75g glucose or corn syrup and 75ml of water. When cooled mix in dried marshmallow root that has been pulverised into a powder and mix with a little water to make a paste…about 1 tablespoon of marshmallow root per egg white seems to be a good ratio, and add to the remaining whipped egg. Pour onto a baking tray, dredge with icing sugar and leave to set.