Mallow originates from southern Europe and Asia but has spread all over the world as a common weed. Its cousin, the dwarf mallow (Malva neglecta), is another Eurasian plant that has spread far and wide. Other similar plants in the same family (Malvaceae) are hibiscus and marshmallow. The dried or fresh flowers and leaves of high mallow and dwarf mallow are used as food and medicine.
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Mallow has a long history of use for relieving coughs.
The mucilage of slippery elm gives it a soothing effect for coughs. Usnea also contains mucilage, which may be helpful in easing irritating coughs. There is a long tradition of using wild cherry syrups to treat coughs. Other traditional remedies to relieve coughs include bloodroot, catnip, comfrey (the above-ground parts, not the root), horehound, elecampane, mullein, lobelia, hyssop, licorice, mallow, (Malvia sylvestris), red clover, ivy leaf, pennyroyal (Hedeoma pulegioides, Mentha pulegium), onion, (Allium cepa), and plantain (Plantago lanceolata, P. major). None of these has been investigated in human trials, so their true efficacy for relieving coughs is unknown.
Mallow has been used as food and medicine in Europe since the time of ancient Greece and Rome. Traditional herbal medicine continues to regard the plant as a useful anti-inflammatory agent for the respiratory tract, the skin, and the gastrointestinal tract.1 The esteemed German physician and herbal authority, Rudolf Weiss, MD, recommended mallow primarily for irritations of the mouth and throat, as well as for dry, irritating coughs.2 He also mentions its use topically for mild cases of eczema.
Like its close relative marshmallow (Althea officinalis), mallow leaves and flowers contain high amounts of mucilage.3 Mucilage, made up of complex carbohydrates, gives mallow most of its soothing activity, though flavonoids and anthocyanidins may also contribute. In herbal medicine, mallow is classified as a demulcent—a soothing agent that counters irritation and mild inflammation. Both mallow leaf and flower preparations are approved by the German Commission E for relief of sore throats and dry coughs.4 Mallow is typically used as a tea or gargle for these indications.
In test tube studies, one carbohydrate in mallow has been shown to inhibit a component of the immune system known as the complement cascade.5 Excessive activation of the complement cascade has been implicated in chronic inflammation and autoimmune disorders, suggesting that further research on mallow in these areas is warranted. A polysaccharide from the seeds of a related mallow (Malva verticillata) stimulated white blood cells known as macrophages in a test tube study.6 Crude powder of one mallow species showed anticancer effects in another test tube study.7
Mallow leaf and flower preparations are most commonly consumed as teas.8 Boil 2 to 4 teaspoons of the dried leaves or flowers in 150 ml of boiling water for 10 to 15 minutes. One cup of the tea can be drunk three times per day. For topical use, a cloth can be dipped in the hot tea, allowed to cool, and then applied to inflamed skin. Alternatively, a cold infusion can be made, by soaking 6 teaspoons of the dry herb in a quart of cold water overnight, and then applied topically. According to some herbalists, the cold infusion likely extracts the plant’s mucilage (a soothing, gelatinous substance) most effectively and may work best for both internal and topical use.
1. Lust J. The Herb Book. Toronto: Bantam Books, 1974, 262–3.
2. Weiss RF. Herbal Medicine. Gothenburg, Sweden: Ab Arcanum and Beaconsfield: Beaconsfield Publishers Ltd., trans. Meuss AR, 1985, 196.
3. Wichtl M. Herbal Drugs and Phytopharmaceuticals. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1994, 313–6.
4. Blumenthal M, Busse WR, Goldberg A, et al. (eds). The Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. Austin, TX: American Botanical Council and Boston, MA: Integrative Medicine Communications, 1998, 164.
5. Gonda R, Tomoda M, Shimizu N, Yamada H. Structure and anticomplementary activity of an acidic polysaccharide from the leaves of Malva sylvestris var. mauritiana. Carbohydr Res 1990;198:323–9.
6. Gonda R, Tomoda M, Shimizu N, Kanari M. Characterization of an acidic polysaccharide from the seeds of Malva verticillata stimulating the phagocytic activity of cells of the RES. Planta Med 1990;56:73–6.
7. Huang CY, Zeng LF, He T, et al. In vivo and in vitro studies on the antitumor activities of MCP (Malva crispa L. Powder). Biomed Environ Sci 1998;11:297–306.
8. Schulz V, Hänsel R, Tyler VE. Rational Phytotherapy: A Physician’s Guide to Herbal Medicine. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1998, 150–1.
Last Review: 05-01-2013
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