Podcast 172: Herbs A-Z: Alnus & Althaea

Every herbalist has their core favorite herbs. Sometimes we lose sight of the vast array of plants we have to work with. In an effort to not neglect our less-than-favorites, we’re profiling all of the herbs on the shelves in our apothecary. (The herbs go marching two by two, hurrah hurrah!)

This week our pair of herbs is two plants who are both very helpful with the regulation of fluids in the body. First up is alder, Alnus incana and other species. Alder is a plant with excellent integrity: it holds itself together in watery areas, and it can help us hold water where we need it – or disperse it from where it’s stuck. Got swollen lymph nodes? Got varicosities & edema? Alder can help.

Marshmallow, Althaea officinalis, is our #1 demulcent herb. It’s very helpful whenever dryness is the defining state we’re trying to shift. But marshmallow is also an excellent wound healer, and a surprisingly powerful antimicrobial too! We quite like to work with the leaf, despite that the root is a bit more famous and common as an herbal remedy.

Mentioned in this episode:

Enjoyed these herb profiles? These were done off-the cuff & on-the-spot, but our organized & comprehensive presentation of our herbal allies is in the Holistic Herbalism Materia Medica course. We have detailed profiles of 90 medicinal herbs! Plus you get everything that comes with enrollment in our courses: twice-weekly live Q&A sessions, lifetime access to current & future course material, discussion threads integrated in each lesson, guides & quizzes, and more.

Materia Medica

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Our theme music is “Wings” by Nicolai Heidlas.

This episode was sponsored by Mountain Rose Herbs. We thank them for their support!


Episode Transcript

Katja (00:18):
Hi, I’m Katja.

Ryn (00:19):
And I’m Ryn.

Katja (00:20):
And we’re here at Commonwealth Holistic Herbalism in Boston, Massachusetts.

Ryn (00:24):
And on the internet everywhere thanks to the power of the podcast. Hey, guess what? We’re continuing our series herbs A to Z, all the herbs on our shelf at present. Although we might sneak a couple of extra on to there.

Katja (00:39):
I was just going to say yesterday I was listening to a history podcast. And there was a history of absinthe. And I was like ah, there’s some good new details in here. And we’re going to have to add wormwood, even though we don’t keep it on the shelf.

Ryn (01:00):
We’ll get a jar. We’ll put it up there.

Katja (01:03):
Already, already there are additions.

Ryn (01:05):
Yeah. It’s coming soon to an episode near you. But I think that’s one, two episodes away from now. For today, we’re going to be talking about Alder, that’s Alnus species. And we’re going to be talking about marshmallow, Althaea officinalis.

Katja (01:22):
I’m pretty excited about the dichotomy of these two plants, the paradoxical function of these plants.

Ryn (01:33):
Well, before we leap in let’s remind you that we are not doctors. We are herbalists and holistic health educators.

Katja (01:39):
The ideas discussed in this podcast do not constitute medical advice. No state or federal authority licenses herbalists in the United States. So these discussions are for educational purposes only.

Ryn (01:52):
We want to remind you that good health doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone. Good health doesn’t exist as an objective standard. It’s influenced by your individual needs, experiences, and goals. So, we’re not trying to present one dogmatic right way that you should adhere to.

Katja (02:06):
Everybody’s body is different. So, the things that we’re talking about may or may not apply directly to you. But we hope that they’ll give you some good information to think about, and some ideas to research further.

Ryn (02:17):
Finding your way to better health is both your right and your own personal responsibility. This doesn’t mean you’re alone on the journey. But it does mean that the final decision when considering any course of action, whether it’s discussed on the internet or prescribed by a physician, is always yours to make.

Katja (02:32):
Hey, I also wanted to mention that this episode is being sponsored by Mountain Rose Herbs.

Ryn (02:39):
Thank you.

Katja (02:39):
Yes, thank you. And you can find them at mountainroseherbs.com. And I wanted to take a minute actually, because sometimes people ask us why we recommend Mountain Rose Herbs to our students instead of some small local farm or a local shop. And besides the fact that we don’t always know all of the local herb shops all across the country, actually a big part of the answer comes down to training. And before I explain this, I want to say I definitely do think that small local farms are fantastic, and small local shops are fantastic. And if you have a good one in your area, please, please do support them. But here’s the thing. When people are just starting out, and they haven’t yet developed their ability to know whether what they’re getting is good quality. They don’t really…like maybe it’s the very first time that you’re ever ordering marshmallow or sage or any of these things. Maybe you’ve never seen it before, never tasted it before, never smelled it before. And you don’t really know what to expect. And if you don’t know what to expect, then it’s very difficult to judge good quality. And so Mountain Rose really, you know, they have this mission of supporting education. And that is one of the things that like when you order stuff from them, it is a baseline. It is a baseline of good quality. And you may be able to find some really special thing in your local area. But you may not know that it’s really special, or you may not feel confident in evaluating the quality of it until you’ve tried it someplace that you can trust. And you’re like, okay. I now have a baseline for what good quality is. And I feel like I can now evaluate things against this baseline.

Ryn (04:41):
Yeah. We’ve always been very pleased with the quality of what we get from Mountain Rose. I mean, you’ve been ordering from them for more than 20 years now.

Katja (04:49):
Yeah. And the funny thing is that in all that time, I’ve had one pound – I think it was actually a half pound bag. It was dandelion leaf – that I was unsatisfied with. And listen, I could have sent it back. I could have sent it back, and they would have replaced it. But at the time I decided not to, because I wanted to keep it as a teaching tool. But we’ve ordered hundreds and hundreds of pounds of herbs there. And also hundreds of pounds of herbs from local herb farms. And one fun thing is that some of our local herb farms actually sell their herbs to Mountain Rose Herbs too. So, that’s pretty cool. But it just is really nice to have a place that has most of the herbs that you will work with in stock, and gives you that opportunity to really see what is this thing that you maybe have never experienced before. And what should you be looking for in terms of quality. And what should you be looking for in terms of taste and smell and color. And so for folks who are students, I really do think this is a great way to learn what you’re looking for. So, that then if you do want to branch out and find local purveyors, that you’ll be able to make good judgments about what quality is.

Ryn (06:18):

Katja (06:18):
Or if you want to grow it yourself.

Ryn (06:21):
Yeah. And just to see how it turns out for you and make a comparison.

Katja (06:26):
Yeah, like you grow it yourself, and you dry it. And you’re like I don’t know, did I do it right? Is it good? You have that comparison to compare with it. Actually, that is also a trick that I love to tell students. When you’re making something for the first time, whether it’s a tincture or whatever, it’s actually a great idea to get some commercially produced from a reputable source. So, let’s say you’re making your very first tincture of whatever. You started with spearmint. You wanted a spearmint tincture. And you don’t really know what to expect. You don’t know if you did a good job or not. Well, check out Mountain Rose Herbs. They have tinctures. And get a bottle, like just get an ounce. And maybe there’s a local provider at the farmer’s market or something. So, you get an ounce of that. And you make your own. And now you can compare all of them and see did you do a good job? You know that if you get the bottle of tincture from Mountain Rose, you know that it’s good. You get the one from your local farmer’s market. And you talk to them, and you’re like oh, I think they probably did a good job. And then you made your own. You’re like I don’t know. I tried to do a good job. Did I do a good job? And then you test them all. And it’s a really handy method for evaluating your own skill as you progress in your learning.

Ryn (07:53):
Yeah. And it’s better to get your comparator samples from some place like Mountain Rose rather than just finding some random seller on Amazon. That can get kind of risky in terms of quality. There are good qualities there. There are some not so good ones. It’s hard to know the difference when you’re just starting out. So yeah, having a baseline is really handy. So thanks Mountain Rose. And again, their website is mountainroseherbs.com. And you can check out all the things they have to offer right there.

Katja (08:26):

Alnus incana: Alder & Its Properties

Ryn (08:27):
Okay, so let’s get talking about our herbs for today. And we’re going to begin with alder. So there’s a few different species of alder that you might work with, and that can largely depend on where you live in the country or in the world. So, we’re up here in New England and around here seemingly the most common kind of alder that we’ve got is Alnus incana, the grey alder or speckled alder.

Katja (08:55):
I love a good speckled plant.

Ryn (08:58):
You do.

Katja (08:58):
I really love a plant with speckles on it. I really do. Okay. Another thing. All of the plants that pop to mind right now that are speckled are also astringent.

Ryn (09:12):
So, you’re thinking of autumn olive?

Katja (09:13):
I’m thinking of autumn olive. I’m thinking of pulmonaria and alder, of course. I will continue to ponder other speckled herbs. But so far…

Ryn (09:27):
Yeah. So, you know, there are other species that you may work with. There’s Alnus glutinosa, which is called common alder or if you’re here it might be called European alder. Because it’s like, you know, more common in Europe. We’ve got a smooth alder. We’ve got a green alder around. But I think the one that we’ve worked with most has been the Alnus incana, the speckled alder. Yeah.

Katja (09:49):
I have to say I really love this. It’s a tree. I was just about to say I love this plant.

Ryn (09:54):
Trees are plants.

Katja (09:56):
Trees are plants.

Ryn (09:57):
How many times do we have to do this?

Katja (09:57):
I know, I know. I know. I know. They’re just really big plants.

Ryn (10:01):
They’re giant plants.

Katja (10:01):
Well, yeah. They’re like me. They’re just tall. They can’t help it. Okay. So I really love alder. And alder is a plant that came later into my life. This was not a plant that I started out working with. In fact, was it maybe you who got interested in alder before?

Ryn (10:27):
It’s possible . I mean, we found some at Hall’s pond. This is a small park, a very small park in the middle of Boston right near where our in-person facility had been for about a decade. And so we spent a lot of time over there, and got to know pretty much all of the plants that were growing.

Katja (10:48):
Yeah. It was the original five acres that started the Audubon Society. And that’s pretty cool. Right there in the middle… you could throw a baseball and hit Fenway Park. It was kind of crazy. And well, okay. And you know, actually the fact that it was growing there also is helpful. It’s so helpful to see where a plant grows in terms of its function. And alder… so this is a very swampy piece of land. There is a pond, but then there’s also just a lot of wetland around the pond. And so there’s a lot of willow right in the pond. And willow is a tree that really likes to grow with its feet in the water. And we’ll get to willow when we get there. But the alder trees at Hall’s pond was like the next row of trees back. Like they didn’t want to grow with their roots actually in the pond, but they were just one step back from the pond. And that is also really indicative of, just like it is with willow, indicative of how we work with it. It’s also indicative with alder of how we work with it. That alder is a plant that really helps manage moisture in the body. It helps to keep moisture moving. And when I think about that in terms of how it lives, it can live in an area that’s a little swampy and a little stagnant in terms of standing water. Not exactly standing water as much as willow, but still. And it doesn’t freak out about that. And then I look at my legs, which are often a place of stagnation and dampness, and this is why I like alder so much. I really like it in working with the fluid movement in my legs. And it’s like, you know, you introduce alder to a situation where there is stagnation and dampness. And alder is like no problem. I totally know how to exist in this environment.

Ryn (13:04):
Yeah, for sure. I mean, overall energetically we look at alder and we see a plant that’s cooling, drying, and tonifying. And so wherever we need those influences, we can work with this plant. If we’re talking about say something topical, then we can direct that right where we want it. So, you could take the alder and you could make a liniment. And you could rub that onto the legs and circulate the fluid that way.

Katja (13:31):
You could, but it would be sad.

Ryn (13:33):
Would it be sad?

Working with Bark, Buds, & Leaves

Katja (13:34):
It would be sad. And here’s the reason why. Because alder infused an oil smells so good. I mean, so good. Like you could wear it as perfume. And it’s kind of bizarre, because it’s just the bark of this tree. And you don’t really expect it to have a kind of smell. But I’m telling you, it smells so good. So you absolutely can tincture it and work that into a liniment. But it’s worth the trouble to infuse it in oil, because it really is…

Ryn (14:07):
It smells particularly good when it’s fresh. As it ages it tends to lose a bit of its kind of character. The stuff we’ve got here today, sniffing from my jar, it’s still got that alder smell. But it’s a little milder than it was.

Katja (14:24):
Yeah, this is pretty well dried though, too. So, that’s fair. But really, if you can just get some. And you don’t need to like peel – this is always true, by the way – you don’t need to peel the bark off the trunk of the tree. Just like if a branch comes down in a storm, you’re set. Just work with that. If it’s a very skinny branch, like smaller than your pinky finger, you can just put the whole thing in there.

Ryn (14:49):
Yeah. Chop it up into pieces.

Katja (14:50):
Yeah. And if is a branch that’s like larger than your thumb, then you can take like a really sharp potato peeler and just peel off the outer bark. And that’s, you know, for some you can go like two layers and if you want to.

Ryn (15:10):
Sometimes you can use a knife, you can kind of like slit it lengthwise and then kind of peel it all the way around.

Katja (15:16):
Yeah. And then just put that in oil. And unless it was raining when you harvested it, which it wasn’t, because you wouldn’t do that. You don’t really have to worry too much about the moisture. So I like a little bit of heat when I make an oil, but also I kind of want to cover it. Because if I’m infusing plantain or violet or something like that, I’m going to do that in heat. But I’m also going to leave it uncovered, because there’s so much moisture in those plants. And I want that water to evaporate out, so that there’s no question of water remaining in the oil. But in terms of alder, that’s not really such a concern. And so like, I know that I’m talking about this part a lot, but I’m not kidding y’all. It smells so good. It smells so good. And when you are making herbal products or herbal medicines for yourself or for your friends or whatever, if they are delightful, you will apply them more. Yeah. And like it’s only going to work if you actually take it. So, if you go to a little bit of extra trouble to make something that just smells so good, that you just are always thinking about how good it smells, then you will always be applying it. And then it will work better.

Ryn (16:39):
Yeah, for sure. So, with the alder, the bark we can work with. We can also work with the cones. We can work with the buds. And especially if you have the buds, there’s going to be a point in a year where they’re going to be kind of sticky. And that’s most notable with the European alder. It’s Latin name is Alnus glutinosa, and glutinosa means sticky. So, it’s kind of named for that characteristic. Those parts are going to have kind of more of the aromatic elements of the plant. And those would be probably the best thing to infuse in the oil. But again, we can work with all these different parts. Even the leaves of the tree we can work with for astringent purposes and anti-inflammatory activity where we can apply that topically. So, it’s a pretty flexible plant in that regard.

Katja (17:32):
Yeah. I really also appreciate that alder has some pain-relieving actions, some analgesic actions as well. Maybe not quite as strong as willow, not quite as strong as meadowsweet, but still definitive.

Ryn (17:52):
Yeah. So this is one of our plants that contain salicylates or compounds involving salicylic acid. So, that’s a anti-inflammatory compound. It’s a cooling, a drying, a tonifying kind of a substance that’s found in a lot of plants, a lot of trees in particular. Famously in willow, famously in meadowsweet, wintergreen. But the salicylates can occur in a couple of different forms. The ones we get in alder are primarily a form called salicin. And you could tell, because if you open your jar of alder bark and sniff it, it doesn’t smell like birch. It doesn’t smell like wintergreen. And that’s kind of the… there’s more than two, but there’s kind of two major forms of salicylic acid that we’re going to encounter in plants. You get the salicin and salicortin type that’s kind of heavier and more fixed, and doesn’t really have an aroma to it. And then you have these methyl salicylates that give that wintergreen scent. S, Alnus is more in that first group. And it’s quite effective as a topical remedy. But I’d say perhaps better – if we’re going to be nitpicky and we’re going to choose our salicylate herbs very specifically – I would be more inclined to go with alder for long term ingestion purposes, right? You’re going to drink this. You’re going to have a decoction perhaps with alder bark in it. And you’re going to take that consistently. Not just once or for a day or two, but for weeks or for a month at a time or more. And the reason is that the form of salicylate that’s in here, it takes a little metabolism on the part of your body and especially your liver to become activated. And so the more consistently you have it coming in, the more consistently you’re activating it, maintaining like clinically relevant or symptomatically obvious effects from the plant and from its salicylate content. So, I guess part of that is to say that if you’re working with alder for pain – maybe it’s an arthritic kind of pain or some other kind of chronic structural pain – do not stop on day one. Do not stop on day three. Keep it going for like a week or even a month before you really judge and say how well is this doing the job that I’m looking for?

Katja (20:19):
Listen, that is a really important factor in your study of herbalism. This is why we think it’s so important for students to learn basic phytochemistry. You don’t have to become a whole diploma chemist. It doesn’t have to be all the intimidating balancing chemical formulas and all that kind of stuff. A lot of people didn’t have a good experience with science when they were in school. And so the idea of studying photochemistry is kind of intimidating. But listen, if you just do a Google search for herbs that have salicylic acid, and that’s not even actually quite accurate, right? If you were to Google that, you would get a list of herbs and it would include willow and meadowsweet and wintergreen and alder and others. And then you would just think that they are all interchangeable. And actually none of them contain salicylic acid. And they’re not interchangeable. Certain forms of the salicylates work better in certain applications. And if you really want this to work, you have to prepare the one that you have in the right manner. And it’s not hard to learn. And once you learn it, then you’re just like oh, okay. If I need something topical I’m going to go with those methyl salicylates, like meadowsweet and wintergreen, because they’re more easily absorbed through the skin. And if I’m going to do something long-term internally, then it’s okay to work with the ones that have to be metabolized through the liver before they get into their active form. No problem. Super easy.

Ryn (22:07):
Right. And again, it’s not all or nothing here, right? Yes. You can put alder, you can put willow on to something topically. You can get pain relief from it. But we find that we get faster and better results for those topical or those short-term applications from the wintergreen or from the meadowsweet or even birch. So, you know, it’s the way that we prefer to do it. And we invite you to try that out too.

Katja (22:31):
And so I’ll invite you, on his behalf, to also check out the basic federal chemistry course. Ryn put that together in a super non-intimidating way. And it’s just the stuff you need to know so that you make good medicine. And so many people are like well, I don’t believe in herbs. Or I tried herbs, and they don’t work, or whatever. And it’s like…

Ryn (22:55):
There’s always a story. There’s always more to that story, I think.

Katja (22:59):
And first off you don’t have to believe in herbs. They’re not fairies. They’re just as much science as everything else. But you do have to know a little bit of the science so that you get the right herbs in the right place in the right form to do the right job. And when you do, it’s just like unlocking… anyway, okay. So, alder is awesome.

Moving Lymph

Ryn (23:21):
Yeah, it’s awesome. All right. So, okay, we’ve got some pain relieving effects. We’ve got some cooling, drying, tonifying effects. One thing that I like about alder a lot, and that I do differentiate it a little bit from say willow, to which it’s otherwise extremely similar, is that alder has a bit more capacity to circulate lymph in the body.

Katja (23:42):
Yeah. And this is why it’s just my total favorite.

Ryn (23:45):
Yeah. That’s so valuable. I mean, that activity is valuable whenever we find it in our herbs. And I keep asking every time I get a new group of pharmacy students, like every six weeks, I’m like hey everybody. Did y’all invent any pharmaceutical medications that are specifically oriented towards circulating lymph yet? And they’re like I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Katja (24:07):
Why would I want to do that?

Ryn (24:08):
That’s not a thing that we do. But that’s a thing that herbs do really well. And that’s extremely valuable, because your lymphatic system is super important. It’s many things, you know. It’s a waste clearance channel. It’s a super highway for your immune system. It’s even a delivery pathway for lipids, like metabolized or digested fat molecules. Your lymph is super important. And the best way, the most critical way, to circulate your lymph is to move your body. And take a walk and go and find an alder tree. And climb up it if you can. That’ll really get your lymph moving.

Katja (24:47):
It would be hard to climb an alder tree actually. The branches aren’t very…

Ryn (24:52):
Yeah, they have the like bare trunk for eight, 12 feet up.

Katja (24:55):
If you can do that Palm tree thing.

Ryn (24:58):
Yeah. They’re not too broad. So, you could do the foot pinch climb.

Katja (25:03):
Yeah, you could.

Ryn (25:04):
But okay. But moving lymph, right? So yes, we can do that both topically and systemically. If you had like swollen lymph nodes say under your breast tissue or in your armpit, you could take alder bark. You could make a poultice with it or a compress. And apply it on there and let it kind of soak in through the skin.

Katja (25:25):
Or a massage oil.

Ryn (25:26):
You can make it a massage oil. That would be pretty great.

Katja (25:28):
I don’t think my choice would be a poultice. That that would be a weird, prickly poultice. I don’t know. You’d have to really soak it to get it to soften up enough to feel like you’d want to put it on.

Ryn (25:39):
Right. Because it’s bark.

Katja (25:40):
It’s bark, yeah.

Ryn (25:41):
But an infused oil, you know, that would be nice.

Katja (25:43):
It would be so nice. Yeah. It would be so nice. So, for me personally, the way that I like to work with alder is I do love to apply it topically in an oil. You know, I have a family history of varicose veins. I got my first varicose vein when I was 16 years old or whatever.

Ryn (26:04):
You’re skin started early.

Katja (26:05):
Yeah, exactly. And you know, that’s just something that runs in my family, both genetically, but also habitually. Like the culture of my family tends to encourage holding the stagnation in the lower half of the body. Because my family’s not a super sporty family. I grew up like sit still and study. Sit still and make things with your hands. Sit still and anything you can do while you’re sitting still, right? Like that was my family culture.

Ryn (26:42):
And then occasionally like carry a tuba in a marching band, but…

Katja (26:45):
Right. Yes, definitely that. And so, if you have like a genetic history of varicosities and then a family culture of mostly sedentism, okay. Well, those are two not so great things that are going to go not so great together, and like feed into each other. So, even when I’m just having a regular old, healthy Tuesday, I’m still thinking about doing things to support fluid movement in my legs all of the time. So, I love to have alder oil, either in a homemade lotion to put on my legs, or just as the oil itself, or put the oil in a liniment as like the oil portion of a liniment. Also great. And then I also like to put alder in my not coffee in the mornings. So, my not coffee blend always has reishi and ashwagandha. Those are always in there. And lately, maybe where lately is kind of like the last year or so, there’s been a real focus on alder, pleurisy root, sometimes rhodiola. These herbs that have this drying aspect and also the up from the bottom of your body movement of fluid aspect. And then always angelica too, which, which also is stimulating fluid movement especially in the lower part of the body, although that’s more on the circulatory side.

Ryn (28:30):
Yeah. You know, we don’t necessarily practice like within the realm of what’s called Southern folk medicine. But from that system the concept of low blood versus high blood is, I think, relevant to what you’re discussing here. You know, these herbs you’re talking about are kind of like – I don’t know if you would say – herbs for low blood. But like it’s literally low in the body, in the bottom part. And we’re trying to improve better movement and circulation of that up through the rest of the system.

Katja (29:01):
Yeah. So alder really does become part of my kind of daily routine, even though it’s kind of just a part. Just a part of my daily routine. And I’m not always thinking I need to have my not coffee so I can move the fluid from my legs. No, I’m thinking oh my God. It’s morning. I need something that tastes like coffee.

Ryn (29:25):
Yeah, I have put alder… just a little while ago I had a kind of like lingering, wouldn’t quite go away, earache issue going on. And I ended up making a decoction with some immune stimulants basically. Some echinacea, some red sage root, and a few other things to try to like really get into the fluid channels in the body and get them moving. And I put a big handful of alder bark into there, and some birch as well. I was kind of bringing some friends together, but that worked great. Two days and it was fully resolved. So, that felt good. It had been like a hard swollen, like inflamed irritated, I don’t know. I’m not entirely sure what kind of channel it was, but it was like towards the front of the ear, like right next to the tragus. It was a weird spot. I haven’t had a lump there before. But I was like I’ve got a lump. I need some lymphatics. Alder’s going to go in here. It’s going to be great. And then it was. So, yeah. That’s what’s up. I also came around to including alder in a joint liniment formula that I make pretty often. I had initially, once upon a time, started out to have willow in there. And I liked it and it was good. But then I switched it up with alder after considering about the lymphatic quality and I think it’s…

Katja (30:52):
I like it so much better.

Ryn (30:53):
I think it’s a little better.

Katja (30:54):
I do. I like it so much better.

Ryn (30:57):
Yeah. So, it’s not that willow’s not fantastic. This happens every time I start talking about alder. Being like I prefer it over willow for this reason and that reason and that reason. Then it’s like, sorry willow. You’re still great.

Katja (31:09):
No, willow is pretty great. If I want to weave a basket, willow is the one. It’s not alder.

Ryn (31:15):
Yeah. That’s fair.

Katja (31:19):
Yeah. Well, no. And I think that also willow can handle a situation that is beyond boggy. Like just totally flooded. So I think that if…

Ryn (31:31):
It feels more strongly drying.

Katja (31:33):
Right. I think that if I had like a real significant edema kind of situation, I would absolutely want willow in the mix. But I wouldn’t remove the alder. I would still want the alder there for the lymphatic movement. But I would definitely be like hey alder. You need some willow to get this job done.

Ryn (31:52):
Yeah. I can see that.

Katja (31:56):
I just need to pause for a moment to say that when we film our online courses, usually our cat Lucy is the one on screen. She really loves to get in our laps. And she really just loves to be on camera. And we have three cats. Another cat, her name is Glory. She’s super camera shy. And she’s like never in the picture. But I just want y’all to know that she is really in the podcast today. She’s all cuddly and purring. And you certainly can’t hear it from there, but she really wants to be here. So, she’s not on camera for ya’ll. But just imagine the tiniest tortoise shell tabby cat you’ve ever seen. She’s here with you.

Ryn (32:49):
That’s Glory kitten. And yeah, I don’t know. Sometimes she comes because I think she’s attracted to certain herb scents. She definitely is a cat who likes valerian root. Not every one of our cats is into that particular one. But Glory will come running if I open the jar. And I think maybe she’s interested in this alder bark, because she keeps sniffing at it. So, that’s cool. I don’t know. More to say about alder?

Althaea officinalis: Marshmallow and Its Properties

Katja (33:11):
No. It’s marshmallow time.

Ryn (33:12):
It’s marshmallow time? You’re all enthusiastic about this one.

Katja (33:16):
I’m pretty excited to talk about marshmallow.

Ryn (33:18):
Marshmallow feels to me like one of those herbs where if you’re like, all right. You can only pick six plants for your desert island. You know, with the way that we think of herbalism I’d be like well, I need something hot. I need something cold. I need something moist and dry and relaxant and tonifying. And that way I can blend them in the appropriate proportions.

Katja (33:41):
And do everything I have to do, yeah.

Ryn (33:41):
And create whatever effect I want. Okay. So, if I need a moistening herb, it’s going to be marshmallow, right? Like there are so many other options, but not as many as for drying plants. And marshmallow is like flexible enough. It’s profound enough in its effect as a moistening herbs. That really anytime that’s our goal, I’m pretty sure that marshmallow can accomplish the job.

Katja (34:06):
Michael Moore – not the filmmaker, Michael Moore, the herbalist – he has a quote that you hear. I think less now, because he passed away quite a while ago. But you used to hear this pretty commonly that you’re not an herbalist until you can work with cherry bark in a hundred different ways. And I always was like cherry bark’s not really my favorite. I don’t think I could find 10 different ways to work with cherry bark. Like, okay, 10 I probably could. But I’m like really, cherry bark? That’s the one I need a hundred ways? I don’t know. And I think that if Michael were alive today, we could have a really long discussion about that and have a lot of fun. But I really think that there are a hundred ways to work with marshmallow. I really do. I think there’s 101, actually.

Ryn (35:14):
I mean we could start, we could just say, okay. So, it’s a cooling, moistening, relaxant herb. Those are its basic qualities. And the vast majority of the time that herbalists talk about marshmallow, it’s the marshmallow root that they’re going to focus on. And we like the root. We work with it a ton, you know. It makes a fantastic cold infusion. It can get really slimy and viscous.

Katja (35:37):
Neither of us like the flavor.

Ryn (35:39):
I mean, yeah.

Katja (35:40):
It’s not even offensive. It’s not bitter. It’s not… there’s nothing wrong with the flavor. It’s just sort of bland.

Ryn (35:47):
It is bland. And I do look at a jar of like just plain marshmallow root cold infusion, you know, viscosity slime. And I look at it and I’m like, I should drink that. Yeah. That would like moisten me up and be soothing and relaxant. And that’d be… I don’t know, man. I can’t do it. Can I put something else in here? Can I add cinnamon? Can I add ginger? Can I add fennel? Can I add licorice root? And if I am going to be drinking marshmallow root cold infusions, that’s what I do. So, for anybody else who’s made one just straight up by itself and been like hmm. This is not the most pleasant thing to slug back. That’s my advice to you is put in some other herbs in there. Those ones I named are the kind of defaults that I go to.

Katja (36:35):
Well, and all of them are moistening except the ginger.

Ryn (36:38):
Except the ginger, yeah. And this is what I’ll bring if I’m going to go on an airplane flight. I’ll bring like a thermos or a water bottle or whatever. But then I’ll bring a small packet of dried herbs. And it’ll be that. It’ll be the marshmallow root, a little bit of fennel seed, a little bit of licorice root chopped up. Maybe some ginger in there, maybe some cinnamon as well. And once I get through the security, I go over to one of the like water filling stations. And put a couple of pinches of herbs into the bottle. And then put in the cool water. And then kind of just sip on it, you know, kind of filter through your teeth is fine. But let that slowly infuse, and it makes the fluid a lot more hydrating. This is one of the key powers of marshmallow is to help your body to hold on to the water that you drink. Yeah. So, that’s really handy if you’re going to go on to an airplane. Because, you know, recycled air. It gets dried out. And so it’s dehydrating. And this is a way to really effectively counter balance that.

Katja (37:44):
If you are like me, and marshmallow root is a little too much for you. I mean, if I have a really sore throat, then marshmallow root is not too much. That’s perfect. But like to drink marshmallow root every single day, my body just doesn’t need that level of moistening action. But marshmallow leaf is really very lovely. Like this is a plant that has like a choose your own adventure amount of moistening action. And so the leaves are… especially like right now I have a head cold. I’m kind of on the tail end of it. But it was one of those head colds that was like all of the snot just dripping full-blast from my nose. It was not attractive at all. And just sneezing and coughing and just so much snot. And so of course, when that happens then I’m like give me all of the loosestrife in the land, and sumac. And I had some elder in there too. But lots and lots of astringent, pulmonary support herbs.

Ryn (38:55):
Right. Trying to get that astringency to the sinuses and maybe the lungs. But you’re probably feeling it in your throat, right?

Katja (39:02):
In my throat and in my nose. Because I really had an extreme amount of snot. I’m trying to get across to you just how buckets of snot is what I’m saying. And so I kind of had an extreme amount of astringent tinctures to go along with it. And after a couple of days, I was like oops, too much. And my nose still was dripping, but it was dripping and dry at the same time. And that’s when marshmallow leaf really comes in to play, like when you actually do need those astringents. You want the pulmonaria. You want the mullein. You want the things that are maybe moistening in the lungs, but they’re moistening the lungs by pulling fluids from other places. And so just a little bit of marshmallow. And in this case, the marshmallow leaf. You can put the same amount in. But in terms of like I put in two spoons of mullein leaf and two spoons of marshmallow leaf. But the leaf is not as slimy as the root. And so you’re not going to get that like over moistening effect. You’re just going to get that really good balancing effect.

Ryn (40:20):
Yeah. Marshmallow leaf is kind of on the scale of like linden leaf and flower or violet leaf, you know, in terms of its moistening qualities.

Katja (40:29):
Violet, for sure. If you leave linden overnight, it really does thicken up. And marshmallow leaf overnight…

Ryn (40:38):
Maybe not quite that much.

Katja (40:39):
Yeah, it won’t quite thicken up as much. Like I’m imagining a rainbow spectrum of all the demulcents in my mind. And it’s sort of like slippery elm, and then marshmallow root, and then maybe linden cold infusion, and then like violet leaf maybe, and then marshmallow leaf, and then plantain leaf after that maybe. And this would be a fun game sometime.

Ryn (41:07):
Yeah, right. Your scale of potency for their demulcent effects. Right. And I mean, you know, it’s worth to consider, to think of that. Because what you’ve been saying is that you don’t always need the most slimacious concoction that you can produce. That’s not actually always necessary.

Emotional Support & Helping Water Stick

Katja (41:26):
Yeah. Or desirable. It’s not always desirable. Okay, but, so here’s another aspect of marshmallow leaf. And that is that emotionally it’s super supportive especially in these times. Like especially when there’s so much stress that you just feel utterly rung out from it. Right now there’s no shortage of things to worry about and to stress about and to be upset about and to be appalled about. And it takes a lot of discipline to keep some boundaries around those things so that they don’t kind of flood you. And all of that is before we even talk about your own personal life. Like that’s just in the air right now. And I just sort of feel like it’s just a really hard time, and it’s hard every day. It’s not like it’s hard, and we get a break for a while. And then like oh, another hard thing. No, it’s pretty much hard all the time right now. And that’s when I’m thinking about marshmallow leaf. So I guess there’s sort of two aspects of this. One is when you feel like you could cry at any moment. And it’s kind of been drying you out or wringing you out to have that level of emotion all the time. And so emotionally in that regard it is sort of like replenishing from that depletion. But then the flip side of that is also if your response to that level of stressful stimulus is to kind of shut down and to harden, or like to insist around yourself. To kind of create yourself a nice hard candy shell and just live inside of it and not be outside of it. Sometimes that’s kind of necessary for emotional survival. But long-term that does damage. And so after a while, like maybe you want to huddle under blankets for a little while, but then you kind of are like okay. I need to emerge again. And marshmallow leaf can – I mean the root too, but really, really I’m thinking about the leaf here – can really help to soften that emotional… I don’t want to say rigidity, because that implies something else. There is some rigidity here, but the rigidity is not like stubbornness. The rigidity is I am trying to protect myself.

Ryn (44:25):
Yeah. I mean, that can become a kind of brittleness with that.

Katja (44:29):
That might be the word I mean more.

Ryn (44:30):
Especially if that persists for a long time. This is kind of like… what we’re talking about here is sort of like the expression of dryness on the emotional level. And yeah, marshmallow can be very helpful with that. Like you say, leaf. You can also even work with the flowers. And I mean, sometimes even we’ll work with flower essences for that same kind of purpose, that sort of internal softening effect. Yeah. It can be really nice,

Katja (44:58):
You know, the way that you said that about describing dryness and the emotional state, I guess not only that, but I made two kinds of dryness. One was a person who normally has plenty of dampness, but has wrung it out and needs to replace it. And the other was a person who already had a tendency towards dryness emotionally, and then it was pushed further in that direction. It can be hard to see the energetics in emotional states. They’re there. They’re absolutely there, but it takes some practice thinking about them in those terms. So I like to draw those out whenever we have them.

Ryn (45:38):
Yeah. If that excites you, there’s a lot more of that in our nervous and emotional health course.

Katja (45:44):
My favorite course. It’s my favorite course.

Ryn (45:47):
Yeah. That’s a good one.

Ryn (45:49):
You know, one other thing to think about with marshmallow – I sort of touched on this earlier – is that it’s very helpful when you’re drinking fluids, but they’re not sticking. And this is a pattern that we’ve just observed so frequently in students and clients for years and years. And the way it usually shows up is someone who’s like I don’t know. I have like dryness on my fingernails, on my cuticles, on my scalp. My hair’s got split ends on it. My skin is dry. Maybe there’s even like dry rashy patches and that kind of thing.

Katja (46:26):
And like when they talk about fluids, the phrase that comes up again and again is it goes right through me. Like as soon as I drink something, I have to go pee.

Ryn (46:36):
Right. Because you know, someone is talking about that and you’re like okay. Well, how much water do you drink in a day? And this is the person who says I drink a lot. I drink the eight glasses. I drink two full liters. I carry my water bottle with me everywhere. So, I know I’m actually doing it. And you’re like ah, okay. I’ve got to give you marshmallow.

Katja (46:55):
Because it literally is going right through you.

Ryn (46:57):
Yeah. The water is not sticking, you know. It’s not being absorbed well. So, when you take your marshmallow, especially the root but to some extent even the leaf, when you infuse it in the water, what’s happening is that these structures called polysaccharides are coming out of the plant material. And these are essentially like sugar molecules, but they’re very long and very complicated. They’re not like a single sugar molecule, like glucose or fructose, which your body’s just going to absorb and turn into energy right away. So these, they take a while to digest essentially or to break down. Some of them actually behave like fiber, and they might be food for your gut flora, or they might just be kind of like bulking to get things moving. But in the meantime they are really attractive to water molecules. A polysaccharide molecule has a lot of attachment points for water, you could say. And these are like weak attachments. It’s what’s called a hydrogen bond. So, H2O has two hydrogens on it. And the polysaccharides have tons of hydrogens kind of sticking out everywhere, all on their edges.

Katja (48:11):
Like little hedgehogs.

Ryn (48:13):
Yeah. And so the water molecules like to go and hang out next to them. And so instead of being like freely moving water molecules that can slide over each other really easily and make a very thin liquid, it gets literally thicker. They’re going to move around each other, but it’s going to take a little more time. They’re going to be a little slower that way.

Katja (48:34):
Well, you see this physically when you look at it. It does become more viscous. Even if it doesn’t get all the way to gloppy, even if it’s like a short, cold infusion, you still can feel that it is velvety, as opposed to water just plain that just doesn’t have that. So, you can see it with your eyes, and you can see it at the molecular level also.

Ryn (49:02):
Yeah. You can feel it with your sense of touch. You can feel it on your tongue. You can feel it in your mouth, so, yeah. But you know, the effect though is if you take the person that has that habit of drinking a lot of water but it passes right through them. Just take some marshmallow root chopped up, and put it right into that water bottle. And let it infuse in there all day long. Or you can set it up overnight. You can make like, I don’t know, six or eight ounces of a stronger marshmallow root infusion. And then mix that half and half with water, or a quarter, whatever necessary for you to want to drink it down. You could also take that and then mix that with some tea. And that’ll work out fine.

Katja (49:47):
What you’ve got going on here basically is that you’ve created something more complicated. And so it literally sticks in your body longer, because it’s more complicated. It’s not like just one little H2O. Okay, well there’s not a lot of work there to be done. But when you drink it, and it’s all kind of tied together with these big, long, complex polysaccharide chains, all right. Now your body has got to do some work with it. And that water is literally sticking. It’s staying around longer, because breaking all that stuff down is more complicated.

Ryn (50:25):
Yeah. So for people with chronically dry eyes or chronic dry mouth in particular, having marshmallow water or marshmallow infusion into their water, into their tea, is just a very simple, inexpensive, and quite effective method to try to correct for that systemic dryness issue.

Fighting Infection

Katja (50:48):
You know, there’s one other thing I want to mention about marshmallow. And I guess we probably don’t have time to get too in depth about it, which is okay, because we talked about it in the first aid course and some other places in the materia medica too. But I just wanted to, to give it a shout out here, because it really is very important that marshmallow has infection fighting action. And we don’t ever give it credit for that. Well, I mean we try to give it credit for it.

Ryn (51:18):
We’ve been trying to for like 10 years since we learned this ourselves.

Katja (51:24):
Yeah, but I feel like this part of the story doesn’t get told much.

Ryn (51:27):
I was extremely surprised the first time I heard this. And I guess at that point I’d only really been like studying herbalism for maybe five or six years or something. But it was like okay, marshmallow. It’s like a nice smooth thing. You can put it on to dry spots on the skin. You can put it into the body when they’re dehydrated, and it’s going to moisten them up and all that. And that’s great. But then, you know, Paul Bergner was teaching this seminar on biofilms and biofilm busting plants. And he was like listen. Althaea is where it’s at. This is like some powerful stuff.

Katja (52:02):
Yeah. And immune stimulation action through the polysaccharides. And just a bunch of different mechanisms by which it is helping your body fight infection.

Ryn (52:17):
Yeah. It really kind of opened my eyes quite a bit, actually. Because when you come from sort of like… you back your way into herbalism through western biomedical models of things, you’re like okay. I can see how that plant could have anti-microbial quality, because it’s goldenseal. And it has berberine, and that’s a powerful alkaloid. And oh, alkaloids do intense things. And okay, we expect that from them. Or like thyme, okay. Well, yeah like thyme has so many of those aromatics. And we know that those aromatics themselves, the volatile compounds there. They can directly kill off microbes and stimulate immunity, so, okay sure. I can see that happen. But then you look at marshmallow, or seaweed for that matter, and you’re like eh, it’s just a bunch of slime. You know, come on. How’s that going to do anything, do anything active, do anything aggressive? I don’t know. Do anything fight worthy. It doesn’t seem like it would happen. And yet…

Katja (53:18):
But it’s the water dragon. Yeah. It is. It’s the water dragon. It’s like we’re always looking for the fire dragon, because we think that that’s where the power is. But ya’ll, the water dragon.

Ryn (53:30):
Yeah. Do some tai chi, you know, redirect that energy. But yeah, so marshmallow, right, what are we actually talking about? Well, if you have an infected wound, you can make a marshmallow poultice and put it right on there. It will fight the infection. If you have like some athlete’s foot, and it’s all like flaky and red and dried and inflamed and swollen all at the same time, you can make a bunch of marshmallow infusion and soak your foot in that.

Katja (53:59):
Even in UTIs and stuff, even some internal action. UTI is in a more direct infection fighting way, but then there’s also the immune stimulation going on as well. And I’m like oh yeah. Marshmallow shows up in the immune health course too, because we were talking about the… yeah.

Ryn (54:15):
Yeah, for sure. And I mean, certainly digestive issues. You know, if you have an ulcer that’s both a wound, and it’s also a site of infection. And so marshmallow is actually going to help out with both of these problems. It’s got a vulnerary quality to it, a wound healing capacity. But it’s also going to help to, you know, fight off some of that H pylori or whatever else is growing in there.

Katja (54:36):
Maybe it’s 1,001 actually, not just 101. 1,001 ways to work with marshmallow.

Ryn (54:43):
Yeah. It’s good stuff. So, you know, we’re talking here about Althaea officinalis. There are other mallows that you can work with. So, the whole Malva genus is going to be quite similar. Malva neglecta is fairly common, and we have that growing relatively abundantly around here. And then there are other mallows from that genus as well that you can work with. And then there’s Hollyhock, which I see a lot of in Boston. Just growing like a weed, you know, in alleys and…

Katja (55:16):
Escaped from gardens, I think. Yeah.

Ryn (55:18):
Yeah. But that’s a nice one. It’s a lot larger than the others. I mean, marshmallow, it can get what a few feet high.

Katja (55:26):
Marshmallow actually can get four and five and sunflower high. Well, not eight. Sometimes sunflowers are crazy tall. But like four or five feet? Yeah. If it’s real happy where it’s growing, it can be quite tall.

Ryn (55:40):
That’s cool. My bias is showing, because I’ve only seen a few living marshmallow plants.

Katja (55:47):
Yeah. We had a couple, and they were in an area that was getting a little too much sun with not quite enough moisture. And so they were only like three feet tall. Yeah.

Ryn (55:56):
The hollyhocks, you know, they can be eight feet tall. They can be really large. So, if you grow a couple of those, you’ll be able to harvest a lot of leaf material. You know, there is going to be a bunch of root underneath. But all of these plants are very similar. And you can work with the roots. You can work with the aerial parts, the flowers, for all kinds of these same purposes as we’ve been discussing today.

Katja (56:18):
I love alder, and I love marshmallow. I love them.

Ryn (56:24):
They’re good friends.

Katja (56:25):
I love them.

Ryn (56:27):
All right. Well, those are some kind of off the cuff, just what occurred to us in the moment today. This is how we’re going to be doing this series of herbs off the shelf. So, we hope that was interesting. There’s obviously a lot more that could be said about them. And also we welcome any of your thoughts and your experiences with these plants too. You know, you can reach out to us at info@commonwealthherbs.com, or just go to commonwealthherbs.com and find the contact page.

Katja (56:54):
If you haven’t done it already, right at the top of the page there’s a place where you can sign up for a free online video course. And when you do that, it gives you access to our live Q & A sessions too. And those happen every Tuesday and Thursday evenings. So, if you want to chat with us in person, you can. So yeah, if you haven’t signed up for that yet, go do it. It’s totally free. You don’t need a credit card. You don’t need anything. You just sign up.

Ryn (57:23):
Yeah. Check it out. Commonwealthherbs.com. All right, everybody. Thanks for listening today. We’ll be back next week with some more Holistic Herbalism podcast for you. Until then take care of yourselves. Take care of each other. Drink some tea.

Katja (57:37):
Drink some tea.

Ryn (57:40):
Get those fluids either squeezed out or squeezed in as appropriate. All right, everybody. See you next time.

Katja (57:47):
Bye bye.


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