Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The healing properties of the Marshmallow

It's reaching the time of year when hot chocolate is becoming a standard beverage, not just for its hand warming properties and sweet liquid energy but also because it comes with marshmallows.
Coloured mounds of fluffy sugar that slowly dissolves on your tongue.
They come by the bag,
and by the jar. the soft sticky fluff without the crystallised coating...
But I digress.

On the bookshelves at home is Nicholas Culpeper's Complete Herbal, an encyclopaedia of herbs and their medicinal properties, past and present. And though it may sound strange, one of the plants mentioned is the marshmallow.
Well, actually it's the Marsh Mallow, Althaea officinalis.  'A perennial... with hairy white stalks, spreading branches, soft and hairy leaves and palish-pink flowers' that grew in marshy land.
According to Culpeper the Marsh Mallow opened up the body and took away hot agues, inflammation and swelling. This helped against pleurisy and other lung diseases, sore throats, kidney stones, hard tumours and swellings of the testicles. On the exterior, when boiled in oil,  it smoothed and moisturised the skin. It was also associated with childbirth, with 'the juice drank in wine [helping] women to a speedy and easy delivery' while the 'leaves and roots boiled in water... gives abundance of milk to nursing mothers'.
But this doesn't sound anything like the marshmallow as we know it today.

Marshmallows as we know them today are actually a descendant of a confection created using the gelatinous properties of the Marsh Mallow. The roots of the plant contains a mucilaginous extract and it was this that was mixed with honeyed water and drank to relieve coughs, hoarseness, shortness of breath and wheezing, coating the inside of one's throat in a mucus-y substance as it slid down. As this remedy was known to the Ancient Egyptians, it's not difficult to see how these properties could have been adapted and solidified to create a dessert type recipe. Such a recipe, and more modern ones, uses the plant's sap or pith (the soft spongy centre of the plant's stem) and boils it with sugar/honey and nuts to create a soft chewy confection. This evolved slightly in 19th century France with confectioners whipping the sweetened sap to create the aerated confection as we now know it.
Today, gelatin is used.
Pity, as it would be nice if marshmallows still cured a sore throat.


  1. As A Scientist, I must remind you of the correct naming of genus and species names.

    1. what? is the name of the marsh mallow wrong, or are you complaining that I didn't include one for the marshmallow?

  2. Genus species not genus species or Genus Species ;)

    1. I was working from caps lock. All fixed. Can you give me a genus and species for marshmallow while you're at it? Please!


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