Sunday, July 15, 2012

Marshmallows don't grow on trees....

Tree Mallow

Were you one of those ill-informed people who had no idea that marshmallow is a plant from which the confection was traditionally made and after which it was named? Were you utterly clueless of the fact that the “candy” was actually more like sweet medicine often given to children to settle an upset stomach or soothe a sore throat? Are you embarrassingly ignorant of the fact that today’s “marshmallows” have no trace of the plant or the medicinal value that it once had? Please tell me that you aren’t well into adulthood and just finding out any of this for the first time!

…But if you are, then join the club. Yes, I too was in the dark regarding the truth about marshmallows, until relatively recent.

And so were a lot of other people I spoke to. Apparently, we’d all been under the impression that “marshmallow” was just a cute, catchy name that some inventor of the snack made up. It turns out that marshmallows may not grow on trees, but they do grow on a bushy shrub that reaches heights of 5 to 7 feet.

I discovered the truth about marshmallows, Latin name Althaea officinalis, only after beginning to study herbalism, which, I’m sorry to say, didn’t happen until I was in my 30’s. I’d read that sweets using the marshmallow plant went as far back as ancient Egypt, where the copious mucilage from the roots was probably boiled together with honey and spices and given to finicky kids who gagged when given bitter medicines.

So, now you know! Better late than never, as they say. I bet not a few folks have gone to a gooey grave never realizing that the guilty pleasure they so treasured had originally been used to promote good health and probably prolong life, rather than contribute to cutting it short.

Although generally speaking, the root of the marshmallow would be used, all parts of the plant, including the flowers, leaves and seedpods (also called “cheeses”) are medicinal and chock full of mucilage that make for good marshmallows. That’s good news for those of us who don’t want to uproot the entire, or even part, of the marshmallow plant.

Mallow flowers

Believe it or not, these flowers, a combination of marshmallow flowers and tree mallow flowers...

…became these fluffy sweets, which are more based on present-day recipes for marshmallows, except with real marshmallow and minus the high-fructose corn syrup and cornstarch, than anything that the Egyptians may have created.