What IS the Marshmallow plant?
When most people think of marshmallows their mind automatically turns to the soft, spongy candy that is delicious toasted on a campfire, munching on when watching the TV or surfing the Internet! Marshmallow’s distinctive taste is due to the use of the sap from the marshmallow plant, or Althaea officinalis . The ancient Egyptians first used in confectionery by mixing it with honey and nuts. Modern marshmallows owe much to their texture and flavor thanks to the French who had the idea of whipping up the sap and combining it with sugar. Modern marshmallow candy is extruded by machine, which gives it its distinctive cylindrical shape, but the marshmallow plant is not only good for making candy, it has other properties too. Marshmallow sap and mucilage has long been used as a treatment for all sorts of ailments, from coughs and sore throats to constipation; many herbalists still use it to this day. Marshmallow sap, seed, leaves and roots are all edible and make ideal salad items too.
The Marshmallow, a hardy but elegant-looking plant
History and uses of the Marshmallow plant and it’s parts:
Marshmallow plants get their name from the fact that in the wild, they tend to grow in the swamps and marshlands of the mid-Atlantic. It’s an elegant looking plant with velvety, soft leaves and pale pink flowers that stay on all year round, which makes marshmallow an ideal decorative plant. Marshmallow plants are also fairly hardy and well used to wet and cold weather, which makes them easy to maintain and look after. The seeds from the marshmallow plant are also great ingredients for cooking, helping to add distinctive flavors to all sorts of dishes, both savory and sweet. The seeds can even be eaten raw!
Growing Marshmallow Plants from Seed:
To grow a marshmallow plant from them, you need to first stratify the seeds to begin the germination process. Stratification involves storing them in the same conditions they experience in the wild and is best done by mixing the seeds with damp sand and placing them in a plastic bag. After letting the bag stand at room temperature for 24 hours to absorb the moisture within the sand, put the bag it in the refrigerator for four to six weeks, giving it an occasional shake. Keep checking for signs of germination, which once begins, indicates the marshmallow seeds needs planting.
Planting the Seeds:
Once the seeds are showing signs of germination (by beginning to sprout), you need to start planting them immediately. They fare best in a normal garden pot, with holes in the bottom for drainage. Simply fill the pot with a good soil or potting mixture and place the seeds and sand from the bag on top. Because marshmallow plants grow in marsh and swampland, they need to be kept as moist as possible. The best way to do this is to cover the pot very loosely with a transparent plastic bag or some wrap, ensuring enough air can get to it (make holes in it if you have to). This will trap any condensation.
You should keep the pot in a sunny but cool area, preferably indoors by a window, until the seedlings begin to sprout and you can see green stems. Keep checking the moisture level, remembering the conditions they grow in the wild; sprinkle with water if necessary if the sand/soil mixture gets too dry.
Time to Transplant!
Once the seedlings are showing signs of sprouting, it’s time to transplant the marshmallow plants outside. Dig holes in the bedding about a foot apart and transfer a seedling into each hole, gently patting soil around it to ensure it is properly secured. Make sure the plants receive plenty of water during the first year, especially during the hot weather, replicating the types of conditions they grow in the wild.
Watch them Grow and Enjoy!
Marshmallow plants grow slowly at first, but after a year, it may be necessary to distance the plants a further foot apart to avoid crowding. Marshmallow plants grow to about four feet in height once matured and are easy plants to take stem cuttings or to propagate seeds. If you want to use the plants for culinary uses, you can sprinkle seeds on salads as a tasty replacement for sunflower seeds, or place in stews and other dishes. The leaves too are good to eat, either raw or as a steamed vegetables.