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.
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.
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.
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.