Marsh Mallow

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(Alcea officinalis) The plant gave the sweet its name. Today it (the sweet) is made from starch, gelatine and sugar, but once it was produced from the roots of Marsh Mallow, for they contain starch, albumen and a crystallisable sugar, a fixed oil, and gelatine matter. It was said in Lincolnshire that eating the sweet would cure ague and rheumatism! (V G Hatfield. 1994), and fishermen's wives were engaged in gathering it along the east coast (Mabey. 1972). The root can be eaten raw in salads, and made into a tea (Usher), and in France the young tops and leaves were added to spring salads (Fernie).

The roots are used in the cosmetics trade, but in France there is a more immediate use. Dried, and known as Hochets de Guimauve, they are sold in chemists' shops as teethers. They are hard and fibrous enough for a baby to chew on, but slowly soften on the outside as their mucilage is released (Mabey. 1977). There is one interesting piece of folklore. In the Isle of Man, marsh mallow was used (both internally and externally) to remove the result of walking or lying on "bad ground", and "bad ground" meant ground affected by the fairies (Gill. 1963).

Marsh Mallow is still one of the best known cough cures (Conway), taken in various ways. In France, druggists used to prepare a sweet paste, called pâté de Guimauve, for coughs and sore throats (M Evans). The practice in Ireland was to boil the seeds in milk, and then drink the liquid (Maloney). It can be prepared as a gargle for sore throats, made from shredded root or leaves, in water (Thomson. 1978). The root can be taken as a demulcent (it is about 30% mucilage); it is also sometimes applied as an emollient poultice (Fluckiger & Hanbury) ("avec un onguent tiré des feuilles ..., on frotte en Esthonie les membres du corps attenits par quelque magie" (Gubernatis) ). East Anglian people used to treat rashes, grazes and pimples with ointment made by boiling marsh mallow (or elder flowers or periwinkle leaves), then mixing them with goose grease or lard (Randell). An Irish cure was very similar (O'Farrell), and a root decoction (2 cups a day, hot) is often prescribed in Russian folk medicine for pneumonia (Kourennoff).

Marsh Mallow tea was taken in Cumbria for rheumatism, and probably is of wider significance than this suggests (see, for instance, C P Johnson). In the Cots-wolds country, a fomentation of the leaves, soaked in boiling water, is used for mumps and swollen glands (Briggs. 1974). The same is used in Somerset for an abscess (Tongue. 1965), and in Hampshire for boils (Hampshire FWI). The Physicians of Myddfai prescribed the same treatment, and this hot poultice is a gypsy remedy for toothache (Vesey-Fitzgerald). Marsh Mallow ointment, made from the crushed roots, is good for chapped hands (Page. 1978), sore feet and varicose veins (Vesey-Fitzgerald), and to put on a burn (V G Hatfield. 1994). The same ointment was used in horse doctoring, for sores, and sprains (Boase). East Anglian horsemen, too, used marsh mallow to cure a horse "with a pricked foot" (G E Evans. 1969).

The older herbalists were just as keen on marsh mallow as their more recent counterparts. The AngloSaxon version of Apuleuis recommended the juice for slimming, "in case that a man be overwaxen in wamb", or "if one hreak up blood much" (Cockayne). Gerard listed among the "vertues" the fomentation "against pain of the sides or the stone" (a decoction of the roots in water was an Irish remedy for gravel (Egan) ), as a painkiller, the root decoction "Helpeth the bloody flix", and so on.

There are one or two charms to mention. Dyer. 1899 notes a German antidote against the "hurtful effects of any malicious influence". It was an ointment made from the leaves. In parts of France, a necklace of marsh mallow (roots?) is said to keep children free from toothache (Sebillot). One should take note of the name Mortification Root. The point is that the powdered roots make a poultice that would remove obstinate inflammation and prevent "mortification", gangrene in more recent terms, in external or internal injuries (A W Hatfield).

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