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All In The Plant Family - The Marsh Mallow Family

Some plant families seem obscure in today’s world, yet they’ve always been around.   This plant family has been widely known in the past, yet today, you’d be hard pressed to find ordinary people who even know that it is a plant family.  Yet, over two thousand years ago, Dioscordies was describing this plant and it’s use as a medicine.  Even Charlemagne ordered that it be grown in abundance for he needed his soldiers healed of wounds as quickly as possible after.

We buy this gooey-ooey sugary white things of the same name in our grocery stores, probably not ever wondering where they got their name, or even what the connection is. So, it stands to reason that we might not even know the other members of a plant family whose name has been stolen and represents a pop icon of modern American childhood and camping enthusiasts — the Marshmallow family.


There was a time when marshmallows were actually made from the thick roots of the marsh-mallow plant, which thrives in salt marshes. Once the confection of choice by royality, (they gave it a fancy French name “pate de guimauve”).  The primary ingredient was a mallow plant family member, actually grew in the marshes.  Made from the roots, a slimy and sticky substance called “mucilage” was made into a powder and added to egg whites and sugar.  Today, we feed our kids a rude copy, made from sugar and gums. 

Sadly, the plants in this family are no longer is common use for candy making, but they are in use by some herbalists and in other parts of the world for medicines and remedies.  However, before we talk about that, let’s take a look at the real plants in this family.

Historically, the marsh mallow plant family has in the past and still is used as a medicine.  The Romans, Syrians, and the Egyptians used it as a food.  It is even referenced in the Bible as a food to be eaten in times of famine.

The real plant has velvety leaves and pink flowers. Like the other plants of this plant family, it has flowers with five petals and with numerous stamens joined to form a column around the pistil.

The unripe fruits of many of the mallows look much like little Dutch cheeses. One little spreading weed is called “cheeses” for this reason, and is also known as the Dwarf Mallow on account of its small size. Other species are Musk Mallow (named for its odor), and the Swamp Rose Mallow, which is easily recognizable from it’s sheer size. The Swamp rose Mallow grow from four to seven feet tall, with tremendous pink flowers that are up to seven inches wide.

Okra FlowerInterestingly, the Holly Hock and the shrub called Rose of Sharon (or Shrubby Althea) are members of this plant family. What is even more exciting is that this plant family has other well-known members that have always been important as food or an economy. Two of them are, the Okra (or “bindi” as it is called in Indian dishes) and the Mirliton (vegetable pear), both popular in Creole and Cajun cooking.

Then, there is the cotton plant, who is also a member of this plant family. It’s in the flowers of all of these that gives away the family relationship. The fruit of the cotton plant is the cotton boll, which yields cotton fiber, so important to the heritage and economy of the American fabric of history.


Members of this plant family are traditionally used for healing wounds and skin irritations.  It is a scientific fact that the “mucilage” found in these plants have a complex sugar and certain healing properties.  Moreover, the same “mucilage” can’t be digested by the human body, and the end result is that if taken internally, the slime will sooth irritated passages as it makes its way through the body.

It’s biggest value is, however, found in it’s healing properties.  My great-gron-pere, used it frequently in Cajun traiteuse remedies as a paste for bee and hornet stings, wood splinters, and sticker and thorns.  I can personally testify this is one home remedy that really works and makes the plants worthwhile to have in your home garden.  The poultice draws out the sting or hurt and speeds up the healing of the wound.  The easiest way to make use of this herbal remedy is to throw some of the leaves in a food processor and place upon the offending “ouchy” by quickly relieving the pain.

In the wild, it is well documented as a prevention of gangrene, by old time woodsmen and frontier travelers.  It acts as sort of an old-fashioned bandaid in preventing infection.  Steeping the leaves and using them as a wash for skin irritations and infections was also popular and apparently worked.

How To Recognize This Plant Family

  • The Marsh Mallow’s real family name is “Althaea officinalis.”  The name is derived from the plant’s ancient uses and it was commonly known as the “official healer.” 
  • The real plant is native to Europe.  Marshmallows also grow Asia Minor.
  • The marshmallow plants all have one thing in common, they produce a slimy substance.
  • The stems are hairy and branching.
  • The leaves are roundish, often gray-green.
  • Flowers of the marsh mallow family are almost all pink, white, or sometimes blue.
  • Leaves are petioled and two to three inches long,.
  • Roots are perennial, thick, long, and tapering.
  • True marsh mallows grow only in salt marshes and tidal rivers
  • Fruit is round, flattened and segmented.