Candy Plant (In Name Only)

Sometimes plant or flower names disappear into other words. How many people are aware that a marshmallow is showy pink flower on a plant with a long herbalist history in southern Europe and the Middle East? Most people seem to pronounce the name of the candy “marsh mellow,” which further distances the spongy white thing from the velvety green plant.

Althaea officianalis “marsh mallow”

The mallows (Malvaceae) have a nearly worldwide distribution and include about 2,300 species in several genera. The boundaries of the mallow family are evidently a subject of debate among plant systematists; both narrow and broad definitions exist. The marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis) is a native of Europe and has a long history of being noticed and put to work. The genus name is derived from the Greek altho “to cure” and the entire plant, but particularly the root, is infused with a mucilage that is thought to have medicinal properties.

Many members of the mallow family sensu stricto or sensu lato have been identified as either edible or medicinal or both. The cacao (Theobroma cacao) is included in the broader definition of Malvaceae and is well known as the essential ingredient in chocolate. The kola nut (Cola spp.) is what gives cola it caffeine, its flavor, and – as originally marketed – its medicinal properties. Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) seed pods are probably best known as the strangest looking ingredient in gumbo, and the mucilage in them is what makes that Southern seafood stew so gooey. The young leaves of many mallows are tender and sweet and can be used as a substitute for lettuce.

Marsh mallow’s first use was an herbal remedy for everything from a sore throat to a bad belly. The Romans, Greeks, Chinese, Egyptians and Syrians have evidently used the plant medicinally for at least 4,000 years. Many other members of the mallow family have been used medicinally in many cultures for millennia.

One website put the invention of pâte de guimauve at 1643. Supposedly a French pharmacist altered the ancient Egyptian recipe, substituting sugar for honey. In this form it was used medicinally, but also to coat other medicines with disagreeable tastes.

Making mucilaginous confections

It was also the French who decided to include marsh mallow mucilage in a candy-making process. Most sources put the date at around 1850 that confectioners began whipping the mallow sap together with egg whites and sugar. The mixture was poured into molds lined with cornstarch to prevent sticking. The process was labor-intensive and pâte de guimauve was regarded as a delicacy for the well-to-do.

At the turn of the 20th century it was realized that gelatin could be used instead of the plant mucilage with the same effect. Collection and preparation of the plant material was apparently more time-consuming that buying gelatin, which is made from boiling the hide and bones of animals, and marshmallows became somewhat more downscale. By the early 20th century they were being sold as penny candy in the United States. The by now familiar short cylindrical shape of the modern marshmallow is a function of an extrusion process invented by Alexander Doumak in 1948.

Marshmallow Fluff is a slightly different animal … or plant. Two enterprising men from Swampscott, Mass. purchased the recipe from its Somerville inventor Archibald Query in 1920. Query had been making it in his kitchen and selling it on the street as early as 1917, but the sugar shortage associated with the entrance of the U.S. into the First World War ended his business. H. Allen Durkee and Fred L. Mower returned from the war, bought the recipe for $500. Fluff is made from corn syrup, sugar syrup, dried egg whites and vanillin. No gelatin, gum Arabic or mucilage.

Pâté de guimauve

The French still make pâte de guimauve and purists still use marsh mallow roots to make the dessert, although most recipes (even the ones in French) use gelatin (gelatine) instead.

In some Mediterranean cultures – Arab, Greek, Turkish, Balkan – marsh mallow extract is still used to make another kind of confection called halva. The primary ingredients in this confection are sesame seeds or paste (tahini), and sugar or honey, egg white, or marsh mallow root are added in some recipes, to stabilize the oils in the mixture or create a distinctive texture for the resulting confection.


Prune Out Your Dead (Wood)

Over the last couple of days I have been pruning the trees in our yard. There is both art and science involved in pruning, as well as a fair amount of craft.

Ground box elder stump and firewood

My pruning spree was precipitated by a violent windstorm a month ago that split off a large bole of a box elder along the northern border of our property. This thing constituted about a third of the entire crown of the tree. The wind was out of the northwest (the worst wind usually is around here) and when it came down this gigantic limb merely clipped off the corner of the neighbor’s garage (taking the gutter with it) and pierced the top of a former chicken coop in a few places. It could have been worse.

My neighbors talked with their insurance company and evidently were told that because we were not told by any expert that our tree was diseased or weakened, the downing of the limb was an “act of God” and we were not liable. Their insurance company apparently would only pay for damages on their property and we would have to pay to have both the tree and the limb removed. The rest of the tree had to go because the whole side of the trunk had been ripped off and exposed.

The removal of this tree left a huge hole in the vegetation between our property and the neighbors and also exposed how rag-tag the remaining vegetation was. Once I started looking at that border I couldn’t help noticing that the thornless honey locust cultivar trees on the island in the middle of our U-shaped driveway also needed some limb removals.

It is June and if these were fruit trees it would be a bad time to be pruning. Fruit trees are usually pruned in the late winter because all of their energy is stored in their roots during the dormant season. Removal of the portions of the tree while keeping the stored energy constant causes vigorous growth in the spring.

Summer pruning should be done only to thin growth and should not be done after July (to reduce the danger of winter damage). The goal of pruning a fruit tree is to make it short and stocky so that it is able to bear the weight of a lot of fruit.

Right place, but imperfect execution

The practical point of pruning is to remove all dead, damaged and diseased wood. That was very much a part of my recent pruning episode. The honey locusts on our property are some sort of cultivar. There are no thorns on them and the leaves are a light golden-green. They are also extremely susceptible to die-back. The native honey locust is a warmer weather plant, originally found in the lower Mississippi valley. The widespread planting of honey locusts as ornamentals rather baffles me because they are so messy; they are constantly shedding twigs, leaves, branches and pieces of bark.

I must say that I can’t remember the last time I climbed a tree. I used to do it all the time when I was a kid. We had a huge Norway spruce and a white pine on our property and my brother and I used to climb them just for the privacy. When I climbed the honey locust with my clippers and bow saw, I confess that I very much felt like the out of shape middle-aged man that I am. It is a sobering experience to do something in middle age that you did so effortlessly as a kid and feel the strain on all your body parts.

I made my way up as far as I dared go (not as high as I would have gone as a kid) and began to clip off all the dead branches on the inside of the crown. It had the effect of making it look cleaner and neater in there. Making my way down to the lower limbs I began removing the branches that had been driving me nuts when I mowed underneath and had been brushing the roofs of cars as they drove past.

A longer trunk and a little grace

In the end the tree looked more graceful and somehow more defined. The trunk divides about four feet from the ground and the removal of the lower limbs gave the locust a vaguely Africa veldt appearance (it is vaguely related to the acacia).

The next big job was the alder clump that the removal of the box elder had revealed to be almost entirely dead. There are three clumps planted about 10 or 15 feet apart between the driveway and the northern border of the lot. It must have been an attractive screen once upon a time, but the incursion of the usual “volunteer” trees along the boundary had shaded them and made them leggy. They also appeared to have contracted some sort of fungal disease that was causing a great deal of die-back.

Because our neighbor would like her privacy I cannot remove the volunteer maples that are now shading out the alders. The sudden disappearance of the box elder (a soft maple), however, has introduced a lot more light to their vicinity again. I set about cutting back the nearly dead clump closest to the former location of the box elder.

Alder clump stumped

If the disease is throughout the plant, including the roots, then they are probably all goners, but I cut the trunks down to about four inches above the soil hoping to take the disease with them. I first cut them off at about waist high because the splaying habit of the clump puts the trunks further apart there and easier to get at. Then I made my way across the crew-cut clump stumps making room to cut down successive stumps with the removal of their outside neighbors. This two-stage approach also reduced the danger of splitting at the final cut from the weight of the entire trunk falling at once.

Ah, homeownership.