Medicinal Plants

A Gentle Introduction to Medicinal Plants With the Malvaceae!

I like to introduce people to medicinal plants, starting with the Malvaceae.

These are plants that bring softness, but bring it very quickly. So you can feel for yourself how effective they are from the very first use.

This is particularly true of marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) and mallow (Malva sylvestris). Both plants contain large quantities of mucilage. Mucilage is made up of polysaccharides, water-soluble fibers. On contact with water, it swells to a viscous, almost gelatinous consistency.

Marshmallow and mallow are emollients, meaning they soften irritated or inflamed mucous membranes. The more mucilage they contain, the more effective they are. Here, marshmallow root contains the most mucilage. It is highly effective both externally (skin, irritated lips) and internally (throat, digestive tract). All you have to do to understand what mucilage or emolliency is is bite into a piece of (clean) root!

Althaea officinalis. Photo: gailhampshire CC BY 2.0 DEED
Malva sylvestris. Photo: Audray Pepin

What About Other Malvaceae?

Malvaceae is a large family, and I don’t want to venture into too many generalizations. However, many of the flowers in this family, such as linden, musk mallow, lavatera or hibiscus roselle, contain mucilage and could replace mallow flower for these uses. Knowing that these plants do not have a critical therapeutic window, if you have not achieved the expected effect, feel free to increase the dose to compensate for the variation in mucilage content.

Botany

Malvaceae are fairly easy to recognize, as the male reproductive organs are fused radially to the style (female reproductive organ). Think of hibiscus and hollyhocks, which have some of the most spectacular blooms of the Malvaceae.

The Malvaceae family includes herbaceous plants (mallow, okra), woody plants and even trees, including lime, baobab and cocoa.

In the Garden

Lavatera and mallow are particularly ornamental, with their many mauve, pink or violet flowers. Note, however, that in Quebec, mallows are not very winter hardy. If you don’t mulch too much, it’s more likely to come back through voluntary sowing.

Marshmallow, on the other hand, is more discreet. The flower is smaller and very pale pink, almost white, but what a pleasure it is to touch the leaves, which feel like velvet because they’re so soft to the touch!

Avoid placing marshmallows and mallows near hollyhocks. Hollyhocks are almost invariably attacked by rust when they flower. And this fungal disease spreads easily to marshmallow and mallow.

These are sunny plants (tolerating a little shade) that like fresh, loose soil. Easy to grow, they are suitable for the novice gardener and are easy to start from seed.

At the Table

Marshmallows, mallows and lavatera are generally non-toxic, unless of course they’re grown on contaminated or very nitrogen-rich soil. In that case, they tend to accumulate nitrate in their leaves.

While they’re non-toxic, the soft hair that covers them makes the mature leaves uninteresting for salads, but the flowers are devoid of it and are a treat, especially for the eyes, but also for the palate. I also like to eat the unripe seeds, which have a taste reminiscent of hazelnuts.

Salad with musk mallow, wild mallow, Californian poppy and rose petals.
Mango, tomato and mozzarella steak with basil, mallow, hosta and monarda flowers and vinaigrette.

What Is the Concentration of Mucilage?

Mallow flowers and marshmallow root are the most commonly used, as they contain the highest concentration of mucilage. The mucilage is perfectly preserved when dried, so you can use dried roots or flowers as well as fresh ones.

Mucilage concentration[1]:

PlantPartAverage concentration (PPM* or %) for dried form
Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)Root350 000 or 35%
Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)Leaf157 000 or 16%
Mallow (Malva sylvestris)Flower100 000 or 10%
Gombo (Abelmoschus esculentus)Fruit6000 or 1%
*PPM: Parts per million. Note: these concentrations are average values, to give an order of magnitude; there are always variations in nature.

For comparison, here are the mucilage concentrations of other major emollient plants:

PlantPartAverage concentration (PPM* or %) for dried form
Slippery elm (Ulmus rubra)Bark350 000 or 35%
Borage (Borago officinalis)Aerial part300 000 or 30%
Broadleaf plantain (Plantago major)Seed250 000 or 25%
German chamomile (Matricaria recutita)Flower100 000 or 10%

We can see that mucilage is not exclusive to Malvaceae. It is in fact relatively abundant, but the quantities observed in marshmallow are nevertheless significant, and the latter has a few advantages over its competitors.

Slippery elm, on the other hand, has been decimated by Dutch disease, and its use must be limited to safeguard the species. Borage, on the other hand, is prolific, but contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids which (in the long term) are hepatotoxic. This is why, in both cases, I consider the use of marshmallow root to be preferable.

But there’s nothing wrong with plantain and chamomile, which are both safe and either abundant in nature or easy to grow. These are good alternatives.

Are There Any Other Emollient Compounds in Marshmallow Root?

Yes, marshmallow root is also rich in pectin. You know, that jelly we use with water to thicken jams? Note, however, that heat destroys the long polysaccharide chains. If you put apples in the pan, you’ll notice that the apple loses its crunchiness. This is partly due to the destruction of pectin.

For this reason, cold extraction is preferable.

Processing to Benefit From Mucilage

To take advantage of the mucilage, you can eat mallow flowers or even a sliver of root.

Drying

Both lend themselves well to drying.

To dry the flowers, place them upside down, petals open, on your rack.

To dry the roots, after cleaning them thoroughly, take the time to cut them into small pieces before drying them.

Infusion and Cold Extraction

Mucilage extracts particularly well from water. Here, it’s particularly interesting to make infusions of mallow flowers for children… it’s magical! You’ll see the infusion change color in just a few minutes. The flowers are very thin, so the mucilage is quick to extract.

Marshmallow roots require a little more patience. Here’s how to get the most out of them:

  • If you’ve just picked a fresh root, clean it and cut it into the smallest possible pieces (you can even grate it like a carrot). Note: you can also take dried root and use it as such.
  • Place the root in lukewarm water and leave overnight.
  • Reheat (just below boiling point).

Note: if you don’t have time to macerate cold, you can heat (still below boiling point) and leave to infuse for 5 to 30 minutes, depending on the time you have available.

Other Transformations

Oily macerations of the roots for external use are rarely seen. As oil is not a good solvent for mucilage, it is preferable to use water as indicated in cold extraction, which is then used in the aqueous part of a cream.

Since mucilage keeps well when dried and is easily extracted with water, using alcohol and vinegar isn’t really of interest here either.

Medicinal Uses

If you make an infusion to extract the mucilage, take time to appreciate the silky, slippery, almost gelatinous texture. You can imagine mucilage wrapping around mucous membranes to protect them, coating irritated surfaces and making them more slippery. Mucilage can be used both externally and internally, particularly throughout the digestive system, from mouth to anus.

These plants are specialists in emollience, but they are also anti-inflammatory.[2],3.

Mucilage quickly soothes throat irritations and stomach ulcers. I like to add emollient herbs to healing wounds, especially if they’re itchy.

They are also good plants for mild constipation, as they create volume while facilitating passage. Because they are very gentle, they are more likely to be used to regulate transit than as drastic solutions to an acute problem.

Marshmallow also has a soothing effect on coughs (béchique), as well as being anti-catarrhal. In other words, it helps release mucus. These properties are less obvious because mucilage does not go directly into the lungs. However, its effect has been recognized by the Commission E[3]. These properties are believed to be transmitted via the vagus nerve. Marshmallow root can be used here, but the leaf (infused) is generally preferred. It’s often a great addition to a preparation if you’re coughing out of irritation, have an unproductive cough or want to free the lungs of mucus (anticatarrhal).

Finally, you can dry whole roots for infants to chew on as they teethe. The root relieves their discomfort, and they generally like its slightly sweet taste.

A Few Precautions

These plants are generally safe, and there are no contraindications for pregnant or breast-feeding women, or even infants.

However, because marshmallows line and protect the digestive system, they should not be used in conjunction with medications, whose absorption may be impaired or delayed. Wait at least 2 hours after taking medication before using marshmallows.

On the other hand, I sometimes use it in mixtures of plants that I know irritate, to reduce discomfort.

Avoid mucilaginous plants when you have excess mucus.


[1] Duke (2016). Dr. Duke’s Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. https://phytochem.nal.usda.gov/phytochem/search/list

[2] Fleurentin, J.Du bon usage des plantes qui soignent. 2, Rennes, Éditions Ouest-France, 2018, 372 p.

[3] Blumenthal, M., Goldberg A., Brinckmann J., Herbal Medicine Expanded Commission E Monographs, Newton,  Integrative Medicine Communications, 2000.

Audray Pepin is an herbalist, blogger, speaker and founder of the gardening platform Tisane et jardin. A few years ago, she left her career as a manager in the transportation industry to pursue her passion for plants full-time. She studied herbalism at the Herbothèque. Driven by her great curiosity, she has transformed her garden into a living laboratory where she cultivates over 250 species and varieties of plants, on a small plot of land in Montreal. It was her great desire to share knowledge that prompted her to initiate Tisane et jardin, which supports gardening projects from design to tasting. Tisane et jardin is a platform for gardeners and herbalists. You'll find information on plants, drawing tools and task management, helping you choose the right plant for the right place, and learn about the care needed to keep it healthy. You'll also discover harvesting possibilities, culinary recipes and learn about the medicinal and ecological properties of plants. Audray has set herself the goal of cultivating your love of plants in all simplicity.

2 comments on “A Gentle Introduction to Medicinal Plants With the Malvaceae!

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  2. A very interesting, informative, and thorough post! Thank you.

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