For The Herb Companion magazine
Copyright© Jim Long, 2006
In the part of my garden that has a sign marked, "Edible Flowers," I have a marshmallow plant (Althea officinalis) growing. Unlike most of the other edible flower plants I grow there, the marshmallow is grown to teach a point, rather than for it's flowers. The ordinary marshmallow plant isn't that showy, it gets leggy unless you prune it back half way in mid summer, and you could easily overlook the tiny, pale white-pink flowers completely. The fact is, this isn't a remarkable or noticeable plant at all.
But when I take visitors on tour of my various culinary and medicinal beds, on to my exotic vegetables and water plants, I like to end up at the edible flower beds. I let visitors sample the old rose variety I grow which is generally in bloom with tiny, hauntingly fragrant white flowers. It was a favorite of my mother's throughout her lifetime. I encourage the visitors to taste the tangy, tart begonias, the unfamiliar flavor of marigolds, the pungent sages, spicy dianthus, and the subtle pansies and basil blossoms. We talk about how well these flavors work in sorbets and iced desserts. Then we pause at the marshmallow and we talk about the origins of how things come to be.
"Like the marshmallow for example," I say, pointing to the leggy, fuzzy leafed plant. Can you look at this and imagine fluffy marshmallows?" If it's a children's group that I'm touring, I may have earlier stuck miniature marshmallows to the stems of the plant to make my point.
Explaining, "Here is where marshmallows first came from" often focuses the children's minds on the plant I am describing and they ask if all you have to do is harvest the marshmallows.
"Yes," I say. "See how the grow next to the stem?" and wait for someone to laugh at the silly idea.
But when you think about it, it really is amazing that anyone dreamed up that fluffy confection and it's only when you delve into the history of the plant do you come to see how plants, and food evolves with time.
The Althea plant was in use in ancient Egypt where it was used to make a honey-based condiment, thickened with the powdered Althea root and was used as a medicine for royalty, treating sore throats. Marshmallow plants made their way from Europe to the Americas, where they naturalized along the East Coast. In Europe, and later America, in the nineteenth century, doctors used the extracted juice from marsh mallow plants, cooking it with sugar and egg whites, then whipping it into a foamy meringue that became firm. The resulting candy was used to soothe the sore throats of children and adults alike. The juice of the althea, was used as a topical treatment for wounds and cuts, as well as a liquid ointment for throat problems.
By the early 1900s, gelatin had replaced Althea officinalis root in the recipe for marshmallows, making them commercially viable, but also eliminating the cough suppressing, potential immune system boosting and wound healing properties of this useful plant.
In case you missed it, this change was significant for reasons beyond medicinal. If you are vegetarian, eating a gelatin based product, such as a marshmallow, means you are eating gelatin, which comes from the boiled bones of pork and beef, as well as fresh frozen pigskins and cattle hides. You'll also find gelatin in chewing gum, cream cheese, sour cream, cake icing and the candy known as gummy bears. Gelatin is also found in the coating for pills, as well as in cosmetics, throat lozenges and ointments.
So upon closer look, it seems someone didn't just gaze upon the lowly marshmallow plant and have a light bulb moment, inventing the marshmallow. Instead, it was a useful medicinal plant, whose properties evolved into the popular fluffy candy we know today.
When I describe to my garden tours the process of extracting the juice of the marshmallow, it's even more amazing that someone ever made anything useful. The method as it was described to me is this. You dig up some marshmallow plants, replanting a few of the smaller pieces to grow new plants.
Scrub the roots, getting off the soil and dark outer peeling. Then the roots are pulverized in water, pounding them until it is just a mass. More water is added and stirred, then the sediment is allowed to settle to the bottom of the container.
The water is siphoned off, leaving the residue, which is dried and further pulverized. Finally the resulting powder is the part that is added to the sugar, beaten egg whites, vanilla and corn syrup and cooked, then poured into a pan that has been sprinkled with powdered sugar. After the marshmallow has set up, a moistened knife is used to cut the mallows into bite sized pieces and it is rolled in powdered sugar.
The juice of the marshmallow plant has been used medicinally for centuries. The bruised root exudes a mucilaginous sap, that was used for soothing burns and sore throats, it's stickiness coating the wound or sore and aiding in healing. It is this muciliginiousness that made the plant useful. Other plants related to althea include the more common hibiscus, okra and others, and each have some of these sticky juiced properties. (Okra, which came from Africa, was used medicinally, as well, although not for the exact same purposes).
Usually, though, tour groups don't get the full amount of background. Most people don't want that much information, especially children's groups. So my method is to simply perk their interest with the connection between the althea plant and marshmallows. Maybe some little tidbit will inspire a child to read more, or an adult to want to explore more about the histories of medicinal plants. While not every plant has something as visible as the marshmallow to catch someone's interest, most plants do have a history that is just as rich and colorful if we but pause to look.
Jim Long gardens in the Ozarks Mountains. His gardens are open by advance reservation only. Visit his website at www.Longcreekherbs.com.