DOWN TO EARTH

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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.

By the early 1900s, gelatin had replaced Althaea officinalis
root in the recipe for marshmallows, making them commercially
viable. But this also eliminated the candies’ benefits as a cough
suppressant, immune-system booster and wound healer. This also made
marshmallows unsuited to vegetarians, as gelatin comes from the
boiled bones of pork and beef, as well as fresh frozen pigskins and
cattle hides. You’ll find gelatin in chewing gum, cream cheese,
sour cream, cake icing and gummy candies, as well as in cosmetics,
throat lozenges and ointments.

The lesson is, someone didn’t just gaze upon the lowly
marshmallow plant, have a light-bulb moment, and invent the
marshmallow. It was a useful medicinal plant that evolved into the
popular fluffy candy we know today.

Given the painstaking process of extracting marshmallow juice,
it’s even more amazing that someone ever had the patience to create
anything useful from it. If you want to give it a shot, here are
the directions: Dig up some marshmallow plants, replanting a few of
the smaller pieces to grow new plants. Scrub the roots, removing
soil and dark outer skin. Then pulverize the roots in water,
pounding them until the plants are just a mass. Add more water and
stir, then allow the sediment to settle to the bottom of the
container.

Siphon off the water, which leaves a residue that you dry and
pulverize again. Finally, you have a powder you can add to sugar,
beaten egg whites, vanilla and corn syrup, which you cook in a
saucepan, then pour into a pan sprinkled with powdered sugar. After
the marshmallow sets up, cut it into bite-sized pieces with a
moistened knife and roll them in powdered sugar.

The whole process is a bit too labor-intensive for my taste, but
humans have been going to the trouble for centuries.

Jim Long gardens in the Ozarks Mountains. His gardens are open
by advance reservation only. Visit his website at
www.HerbCompanion.com, and click on the “Contributors” link.