Althaea officinalis (Marsh mallow) is an upright and beautiful plant, with soft velvety leaves and delicate pale pink blossoms which appear in August and September.
The name ‘Althaea’ comes from the Greek ‘altho’, meaning ‘to heal’ and Marshmallow has a long history of medicinal use. The soothing properties of the herb are well established and old herbals used to refer to the root as ‘mortification root’, highlighting the ability to rid the body of putrefied or morbid matter. The whole plant is edible and was utilised by many past civilisations; Greeks and Romans regularly consumed the root and leaves as a vegetable, Egyptians combined the sap with honey to make a medicinal sweet and biblical references note the use of the plant when other food was scarce.
In the 1800s French confectioners boiled the white pulp of the root to release its natural sweetness and combined this with egg white and sugar in a confection known as ‘pate de guimauve’ – the original form of the marshmallow sweet as we know it today. The marshmallows that are sold today no longer contain the herb and are without the medicinal value that the original preparation conferred.
- Soothing and anti-inflammatory, for irritation and inflammation of the mucous membranes; digestive, respiratory and urinary.
- Antitussive (alleviating cough) and a nutritive tonic.
- Immune stimulant. Research has found that aqueous extracts of the root stimulated phagocytosis and the release of leukotrienes from human neutrophils1.
The Value of Slime (Mucilage)
Mucilage in herbs is a thick, slimy substance made up of a combination of uronic acid and natural plant sugars (polysaccharides.) It occurs naturally in many plants, but some have a notably higher content than others; slippery elm, comfrey and Irish moss are all examples of herbs that have an abundance of mucilage, likewise the vegetable okra.
In appearance this substance may seem unappealing – the description of ‘slimy’ certainly doesn’t attract many takers on a Michelin star menu.
Once past the palate the true value comes into play. The key action of mucilage is on the surfaces with which it comes in contact, forming a protective layer over the mucous membranes throughout the digestive tract, starting with the throat and oesophagus through to the stomach, intestines and bowel. It is resistant to the digestive juices, remaining intact throughout.
This soothing quality is wonderful for alleviating the pain of inflammation and research has shown that it also promotes the regeneration of epithelial cells, stimulating the healing of damaged tissue2.
The mucilage in Althaea has anti-inflammatory properties that make it effective for a wide range of digestive disorders: heartburn, indigestion, peptic ulcer, gastritis, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. It lubricates, thereby easing constipation; yet, as it reduces excessive peristalsis, it can also relieve diarrhoea.
There is little wonder why it was known as a ‘cure all’ in times past. Today our lives are far more complex, so too are the causes of disease. It is unusual for an illness to be cured by a single herb (or for that matter, a magic bullet of any kind), as these work primarily to heal the physical condition, not the mindset and circumstances that gave rise to the disease. As part of a balanced prescription or used as a treatment for acute illness the herb still has a valued and respected place today.
Making a Cold Infusion
One of the best methods for extracting the mucilage from Althaea roots is by a simple process known as cold infusion. Place 6 tablespoons of fresh Althaea root (washed and finely chopped) into a jar and cover with 200ml of cold filtered or distilled water. Leave this to stand overnight then strain off the liquid, pressing the roots firmly to extract all the juice.
For a cough syrup warm the liquid and mix with 1 teaspoonful of honey (preferably raw), the juice of ½ a lemon and 1 inch of finely grated fresh ginger. Strain and take 1 tablespoon every1-2 hours.
- Scheffer J et al. (1991). Radix althaeae und Flores chamomillae Extrakte auf Entzündungsreaktionen humaner neutrophiler Granulozyten, Monozyten und Rattenmastzellen. In: Abstracts of the Third Phytotherapy Congress. Lübeck-Travemünde: Abstract P9.
- Deters A et al. Aqueous extracts and polysaccharides from Marshmallow roots: cellular internalisation and stimulation of cell physiology of human epithelial cells in vitro. J Ethnopharmacol. 2010 Jan 8;127(1):62-9.
Published in the September edition of ‘The Bay‘ magazine
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The Herbal Clinic in Swansea provides natural healthcare with the use of organic herbs, acupuncture and iridology.