How Do Your Marshmallows Grow?

| August/September 2006

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.

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