It’s hard to look at a marshmallow and think of anything relating to the natural world, but it turns out there is such a thing as a marshmallow (sometimes spelled “marsh mallow”) plant.
The plant, Althaea officinalis, is a perennial flowering herb that grows in wet, marshy areas, and we can thank it for the marshmallows we eat in our s’mores today.
Yes, the soft, pillowy clouds of sugar we char over a campfire today are inspired by a confection that used to be made from the root of the marshmallow plant. The plant got its name because of its marshy habitat, but the root’s sweet mucilage is what eventually led to the creation of an edible sweet. (Don’t worry, mucilage is just a sap-like substance produced by plants.)
This is what the plant looks like:
The marshmallow plant has a history of use in herbal medicine. The ancient Greeks were the first to write about the medicinal properties of the herb, which has been used to treat wounds, reduce inflammation, cure toothaches and soothe sore throats by many cultures throughout history. It has also been relied on as a food source during times of famine, even though the plant itself did not taste like candy.
However, when mixed with something sweet, the sap of the plant made for a natural ingredient in making confections. The ancient Egyptians mixed the sap with honey and nuts, a treat they reserved for the nobility. But something resembling the marshmallows we eat today came much later, in 1850s France, when sugar was more accessible.
According to Harold McGee’s On Food And Cooking, cooks in France mixed the gummy root juice with sugar and eggs, and then beat it into a foam. These early marshmallows were casted and molded, which was an extremely labor-intensive process. The French called it pâte de guimauve. (Guimauve is the French word for marshmallow today.)
These days, marshmallows are made with gelatin in place of root juice. Vegans might not think of this as an improvement, since gelatin comes from animal skin and bones, but the new ingredient makes it significantly easier to produce.
And if they’re easier to make, that means there are more of them to can be turned into s’mores!