Marsh Mallow: The Pharaohs’ Candy Herb

The marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis) is a plant in the mallow family that grows in marshy areas. It is native to Northern Africa much of Asia and most of Europe. It is naturalized in the US and Australia. In Ancient Egypt, the root of the marsh mallow plant was used to make confectioneries. The roots were boiled in honey to release the sap which would then thicken. Once it thickened, the mixture was formed into cakes. These cakes were considered food fit only for the pharaohs and their gods. It was a crime for anyone else to eat them. 

The ancient Greeks considered the marsh mallow plant to be an excellent wound healer. The Ancient Romans made use of it as well, but they used it mainly as food. 

During the Renaissance period in Europe, the marsh mallow was considered a medicinal plant that was suitable for treating a range of illnesses including colds and stomach problems. 

In the late 19th century, the French rediscovered marsh mallow’s candy potential. They cooked and whipped the plant’s sap with egg whites to make the first version of the candy that we know today.

Incidentally, the starch mogul system used to make gummy candies came about because of marshmallows. Confectioners needed a way to speed up the production process because of how popular marshmallows had become. This was also the point at which they discovered that gelatin was superior to marsh mallow sap. The problem was that extracting the sap added a labor-intensive step to production. Modern marshmallow candies are made with gelatin, xanthan gum or other stabilizers. 

The marshmallow would go on to become a candy institution in the United States, showing up in immensely popular treats like toasted marshmallows (invented by the Girl Scouts in the late 1920s) and smores. Marsh mallow root’s popularity would fade though it would retain a reputation as a valuable herbal medicine and useful cooking ingredient. 

Marsh mallow flavor profile

The root is the easiest form of marshmallow to find. Its taste is largely neutral, though it does have an element of woodiness and earthiness. 

Health benefits of marsh mallow

You can get a variety of health benefits from the marsh mallow, which come from the nutrients it contains. Those nutrients include: 

  • Mucilage: Mucilage is the soluble fiber found in a variety of plants including chia seeds and okra. It is well-known for its numerous health benefits. 
  • Flavonoids: Among the most valuable flavonoids in marsh mallow are kaempferol and quercetin. Both are anti-inflammatory cancer-fighters. 
  • Amino acids: Marsh mallow contains the amino acid asparagine, which your body uses to synthesize proteins.

Use marsh mallow as a treatment or preventive measure for:

  • Respiratory ailments: Marsh mallow root is an important ingredient in cough medicine in some parts of the world.
  • Gastrointestinal ailments: Marsh mallow is sometimes prescribed to treat ulcers in the duodenum and gastroenteritis. 

Common uses

Marsh mallow root is best known for being used to make its namesake candy but while you can use it to make sweets, a more common way is in tea. Make marsh mallow tea by itself or add other herbs like lavender or mint. Note that it thickens as it sits due to the mucilage content. Fresh marshmallow leaves can be eaten in salads or steamed like collard greens.