Photo © Steven Foster
Marshmallow is a perennial herb that is native throughout damp areas of Europe and Western Asia, naturalized in North America in salt marshes from Massachusetts to Virginia, and cultivated from Western Europe to Russia.1,2,3 The material of commerce is harvested from cultivated plants mainly from Belgium, Bulgaria, Hungary, and the former Yugoslavia and U.S.S.R.3,4 The plant must be at least two years old before harvesting the roots.5
History and Cultural Significance
Marshmallow has been used in traditional European medicine for over two thousand years.2 Its therapeutic use was first recorded in the ninth century BCE and used widely in Greek medicine.6 Its genus name Althaea comes from the Greek altho, to cure, and its family name, Malvaceae, is derived from the Greek malake, soft.7 In Germany, marshmallow root and leaf are both licensed as standard medicinal teas. The root is used as a component of a few cough tea and cough syrup medicines.8
Its use in traditional Greek medicine spread to Arabian medicine and to traditional Indian Ayurvedic and Unani medicines.1 Early Arab physicians prepared a poultice with the leaves to suppress inflammation. The present day Ayurvedic Pharmacopoeia reports its actions as a demulcent (soothing to mucous membranes), diuretic (increasing urine secretion), emollient (softening and soothing to the skin), and vulnerary (promoting wound healing).1
The German Commission E approved marshmallow leaf and root for irritation of the oral and pharyngeal mucosa and associated dry cough.9 The root is also approved for mild inflammation of the gastric mucosa (stomach lining). The German Standard License for marshmallow leaf and root tea indicates its use to alleviate irritation of the mucous membrane of the mouth and throat, and to ease irritation of the throat in bronchial inflammation.3
The British Herbal Compendium indicates marshmallow root internally for soothing the stomach and intestinal tract.5 Topically, marshmallow is indicated as a mouthwash or gargle for soothing the mouth and throat.5
In the United States, marshmallow is used as a component of dietary supplement products and demulcent preparations.8
Currently, there are no internal or external clinical studies available on the use of Althaea officinalis.
Marshmallow is threatened in Germany and is listed in the German Federal Ordinance on the Conservation of Species.10 A permit is necessary for import or export of any wild-collected material. Marshmallow is also listed as “nationally scarce” in the UK,11 and due to its scarcity in Bulgaria, is prohibited from collection in the wild.12 Commercial marshmallow is, and should continue to be, harvested only from cultivated plants.
1 Karnick CR. Pharmacopoeial Standards of Herbal Plants, Vols 1 and 2. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications; 1994.
2 Leung AY, Foster S. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics, 2nd ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; 1996.
3 Wichtl M, ed., Brinckmann JA, Lindenmaier MP, trans. Herbal Drugs and Phytopharmaceuticals. Stuttgart: Medpharm Scientific Publishers; 1994.
4 British Herbal Pharmacopoeia. British Herbal Medicine Association: Exeter, UK; 1996.
5 Bradley PR, ed. British Herbal Compendium, Vol. 1. British Herbal Medicine Association: Bournemouth, UK; 1992.
6 Bown D. The Herb Society of America New Encyclopedia of Herbs and Their Uses. London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd.; 2001.
7 Grieve M. A Modern Herbal. New York: Dover Publications; 1971.
8 Blumenthal M, Goldberg A, Brinckmann J, editors. Herbal Medicine: Expanded Commission E Monographs. Austin, TX: American Botanical Council; Newton, MA: Integrative Medicine Communications; 2000.
9 Blumenthal M, Busse WR, Goldberg A, Gruenwald J, Hall T, Riggins CW, Rister RS, editors. Klein S, Rister RS, translators. The Complete German Commission E Monographs¾Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. Austin, TX: American Botanical Council; Boston: Integrative Medicine Communication; 1998.
10 Lange D, Shippmann U. Trade Survey of Medicinal Plants in Germany-a Contribution to International Plant Species Conservation. Bonn: Bundesamt fϋr Naturschutz; 1997.
11 Vascular plants—nationally scarce plants without an IUCN designation. Joint Nature Conservation Committee. Available at: http://www.jncc.gov.uk/page-1793. Accessed March 22, 2005.
12 Lange D, Mladenova M. Bulgarian model for regulating the trade in plant material for medicinal and other purposes. FAO Corporate Document Repository. Available at: http://www.fao.org/documents/show_cdr.asp?url_file=/docrep/W7261E/W7261e16.htm. Accessed March 22, 2005.