The Prodigal Weed – The Marshmallow Plant

Wild edible and medicinal, the marshmallow plant, after which the marshmallow treat was named, comes from a large family of mallows. Called Malvaceae, the Mallow family includes okra, hibiscus and cottons, and the latin for marshmallow, Althea officinalis, is named after the Greek Althea, meaning “heal” or “cure”.

So, how did we get from an edible, medicinal plant to a squishy, sugary marshmallow with not a hint of real mallow—or anything else medicinal—in it?

Roasted marshmallow and s’mores are virtually as synonymous with summer as cookouts and swimming pools… hot dogs and baseball. And for winter, few things add that crowning touch to a cup of hot chocolate like some marshmallows floating on top.


Yet far from this sugary fare, marshmallows originated from medicinal use of the sap of the marsh mallow plant in the treatment of coughs, colds and sore throats. Of course the puffy white treats of today no longer contain any of the ingredients of their namesake.

Meet the Multi-Talented Mallow Family

We are finding differing information as to the exact numbers in the Malvaceae family, so including here two sources. If you know of more reliably exact information, please advise!

From Wikipedia:
The Malvaceae, or the mallows, are a family of flowering plants estimated to contain 243 genera with 4225+ species. Well-known members of this family include okra, cotton, and cacao. The largest genera in terms of number of species include Hibiscus (300 species), Sterculia (250 species), Dombeya (250 species), Pavonia (200 species) and Sida (200 species).1)

From Susun Weed on The Wise Woman Herbal Ezine:
The mallow family contains nearly 200 genera (a genus is a group of closely related plants within a family, and genera is plural of genus) — including Alcea, Althea, Malva, Hoheria, Hibiscus, and Gossypium — and more than 2000 species (specific plants within each genus). The mallow family includes beautiful, edible, medicinal, and useful plants such as hibiscus, Rose of Sharon, hollyhock, marshmallow, okra, jute, and cotton.

Virtually all parts of the mallows have been eaten or used as medicine including the fresh leaves, dried leaves, fresh roots, dried roots, and both green and ripe seeds.2)

Most are known to all contain the similar edible and medicinal properties, however, the marsh mallow—Althea officinalis—has far more of the mucilaginous properties than its relative malvaceaes. The one root to avoid is the cotton root for its abortive properties.3)


If you’ve ever cooked okra, then you understand this mucilaginous component. Most mallows are completely edible with medicinal properties. Beyond use for food and medicine, parts of these prolific “wasteland” plants can also be used for other things.

Either way, always check with a professional field guide for proper identification before using any plant as food or medicine.

Beyond food and medicine, other uses for mallows include:

  • Bark used as a substitute for hemp and medicinally; can be made into teas and concoctions
  • Leaves and flowers – edible and medicinal
  • Seed casing for cotton, (seeds are also called “peas” or “cheeses*”, good for food emulsifier and medicinally)
  • Seeds – aka “peas” or “cheeses” for mucilage and emulsifiers
  • Flowers as edibles and ornamentals

The seeds are often called “cheeses” and the plant, “cheeseweed” for the wedged rounded seed pods that look similar to a wheel of cheese.

Marshmallow seeds unpeeled
Marshmallow seeds – unpeeled. Image from
Chalamit Chubeiza seeds - peeled
Marshmallow seeds – peeled. Image from
Seed of the Country Mallow, aka, allow, Indian Mallow and Moon Flower.
Seed of the Country M, aka, allow, Indian Mallow and Moon Flower.

Page 2: To learn of the origin of marshmallows.

References   [ + ]

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I’m LeAura Alderson, entrepreneur, ideator, media publisher, writer and editor of Pursuits in recent years have been more planting seeds of ideas for business growth more than gardening. However, I’ve always been interested in medicinal herbs and getting nutrition and healing from food over pharmacy. As a family we’re eager to dig more deeply into gardening and edible landscape for the love of fresh organic foods and self sustainability. We thoroughly enjoy and appreciate the creative ingenuity of the GardensAll community.