In the “Edible Flowers” section of my garden grows a marshmallow plant (Althaea officinalis). Unlike most of the other edible flower plants, I grow the marshmallow not for its flowers, but to teach a point. The plant isn’t showy: It gets leggy unless you prune it back halfway around midsummer, and you easily could overlook the tiny, pale, pinkish-white flowers.
But when visitors tour my gardens, I like to end up at the edible flower beds. I let my guests sample the old rose variety I grow, which blooms with tiny, hauntingly fragrant white flowers and was one of my mother’s favorites. I encourage visitors to taste the tangy, tart begonias, the unfamiliar flavor of marigolds, the pungent sages, spicy dianthus, and the subtle pansies and basil blossoms. We talk about how well these flavors work in sorbets and iced desserts. Then we pause at the marshmallow.
“Like the marshmallow for example,” I say, “Can you look at this and imagine fluffy marshmallows?”
If the visitors are a children’s group, I might have stuck miniature marshmallows to the stems of the plant. “Here is where marshmallows first came from. See how they grow next to the stem?” I say, and wait for someone to laugh at the silly idea, which they invariably do, but not without at least a few seconds of belief.
Really, isn’t it amazing that anyone dreamed up that fluffy confection to begin with? Ancient Egyptians used the marshmallow plant in a honey-based condiment that was used as a medicine for royalty. The bruised root exudes a mucilaginous sap that was used for soothing burns and sore throats, its stickiness coating and aiding in healing. Other related plants include the more common hibiscus and okra, and each has some of these sticky properties.
Along with human emigration, marshmallow plants made their way from Europe to the Americas, where they naturalized along the East Coast. In Europe and later the United States, 19th-century doctors used the extracted juice from marshmallow plants, cooking it with sugar and egg whites, then whipping it into a foamy meringue that solidified. They used the resulting candy to soothe sore throats, just as the Egyptians had.
By the early 1900s, gelatin had replaced Althaea officinalis root in the recipe for marshmallows, making them commercially viable. But this also eliminated the candies’ benefits as a cough suppressant, immune-system booster and wound healer. This also made marshmallows unsuited to vegetarians, as gelatin comes from the boiled bones of pork and beef, as well as fresh frozen pigskins and cattle hides. You’ll find gelatin in chewing gum, cream cheese, sour cream, cake icing and gummy candies, as well as in cosmetics, throat lozenges and ointments.
The lesson is, someone didn’t just gaze upon the lowly marshmallow plant, have a light-bulb moment, and invent the marshmallow. It was a useful medicinal plant that evolved into the popular fluffy candy we know today.
Given the painstaking process of extracting marshmallow juice, it’s even more amazing that someone ever had the patience to create anything useful from it. If you want to give it a shot, here are the directions: Dig up some marshmallow plants, replanting a few of the smaller pieces to grow new plants. Scrub the roots, removing soil and dark outer skin. Then pulverize the roots in water, pounding them until the plants are just a mass. Add more water and stir, then allow the sediment to settle to the bottom of the container.
Siphon off the water, which leaves a residue that you dry and pulverize again. Finally, you have a powder you can add to sugar, beaten egg whites, vanilla and corn syrup, which you cook in a saucepan, then pour into a pan sprinkled with powdered sugar. After the marshmallow sets up, cut it into bite-sized pieces with a moistened knife and roll them in powdered sugar.
The whole process is a bit too labor-intensive for my taste, but humans have been going to the trouble for centuries.
Jim Long gardens in the Ozarks Mountains. His gardens are open by advance reservation only. Visit his website at www.HerbCompanion.com, and click on the “Contributors” link.