This section is from the book "Meals Medicinal", by W. T. Fernie. Also available from Amazon: Meals Medicinal: With "Herbal Simples" Curative Foods From the Cook in Place of Drugs From the Chemist.
All the Mallows (Malvacece), to the number of a thousand, agree in containing demulcent mucilage abundantly. French druggists, and English sweetmeat-makers, prepare from the Marsh Mallow (Althaea hibiscus) a famous confectionery paste, Pate de gimauve, which is emollient, and soothing to a sore chest. The Romans esteemed this plant in deliciis, among their dainties, and they placed it of old as a first dish at their tables. The gently laxative properties of the Mallow as regards its leaves, and its root, were told about by Cicero, and Horace. Virgil, in one of his Eclogues, has taught how to coax goats with the Marsh Mallow: -
"Haedorumque gregem viridi compellere hibisco".
It grows wild freely in many parts of England, especially about marshes near the sea coast. The root is sweet, and very mucilaginous when chewed, containing more than half its weight of saccharine viscous mucilage. It is therefore well calculated to subdue irritation in hot, and inflamed parts, being much employed in domestic poultices, also in decoction as a medicine for pulmonary catarrhs, hoarseness, and painful diarrhoea. Gerarde says: "The leaves be with good effect mixed with fomentations, and poultices, against pain of the sides, of the stone, and of the bladder; also in a bath they serve to take away any manner of pain." The decoction is to be made by adding five pints of water to a quarter of a pound of the dried root, then boiling slowly down to three pints, and straining through calico. Likewise Marsh Mallow ointment is a popular remedy, particularly for mollifying heat; and hence it was deemed invaluable formerly by those persons who had to undergo the ordeal of holding red-hot iron in their hands as a rapid test of their moral integrity.
The Common Mallow is a familiar roadside plant, with large downy leaves, and streaked, purple, trumpet-shaped flowers, which later on furnish round seeds resembling small buttons, the same being known to rustics as "cheeses." Schoolboys are fond of eating these because of their nutty flavour, calling them "bread and cheese." Clare recalls the time when he sat as a lad:-
"Picking from Mallows, sport to please, The crumpled seed we called a cheese".
Pliny said in ancient times, "Whosoever shall take a spoonful of the Mallows shall that day be free from all diseases that may come to him "; but the roots of the Common Mallow do not yield equally efficacious parts. In France the young tops, and tender leaves of the Marsh Mallow are eaten uncooked, because serving to stimulate the kidneys; for which same purpose a syrup is also made from the roots, with cold water, and sugar added thereto. These roots contain starch, mucilage, pectin, oil, sugar, asparagin, phosphate of lime, glutinous matter, and cellulose. An infusion thereof made with cold water takes up the mucilage, sugar, and asparagin, without the starch. The laxative quality of the Common Mallow was told about by Martial:-
"Exoneraturas ventrem mihi villica Malvas Attulit, et varias quas habet hortus opes".
The Geranium is said to have been originally a Mallow. Mahomet, having washed his shirt while on a journey, hung it on a Mallow to dry, and the plant became therefore promoted to become a Geranium. Again, the Hollyhock of our gardens (Alcea rosea) is a Mallow, possessing nearly all the virtues of Marsh Mallow. Evelyn, in his Book of Sallets, tells that Nonius has commended "the tall Holihock that bears the broad flower" for the best, and very laxative: -
"Nulla est humanior herba, Nulla magis suavi commoditate bona est: Omnia tam placide regerat, blandeque relaxat, Emollitque vias, nec sinit esse rudes".
Writing about the Malva crispa (curled Mallow) Gerarde commends its salutary properties thus: -
"If that of health you have any speciale care, Use French Mallowes, that to the body holsome are".
He reminds us that "The French, with their early spring sallets, intermix the young tops, and tender leaves of the Marsh Mallow, which they call Gimauve, for a most admirable nephritick".