Candy from the garden

Real marshmallows were originally made from the candied roots of the marsh mallow plant.

Lee Reich/AP
People used to make marshmallows from the roots of the marsh mallow plant. Today they are made from a mixture of sugars, egg whites, and gelatin beaten together.

With harvest season winding down, it's time for dessert. How about some candy, real candy, from the garden? Marshmallows, anyone?

Of course you can't just pluck a squishy marshmallow from a marshmallow bush or tree. But marshmallows — real marshmallows — were originally made from the candied roots of a plant. And that plant is aptly called "marsh mallow" (Althea).

Digging for marshmallows
You can grow marsh mallow, and if you do, now would be a good time to dig up a few pieces of root, candy them, and compare them with the fluffy product sold under the same name in plastic bags.

Those bagged marshmallows, incidentally, are no longer made from marsh mallow roots. They are made from a mixture of sugars, egg whites, and gelatin beaten together.

As you scratch into the soil at the base of a marsh mallow plant, the resemblance of marsh mallow roots to marshmallow candy becomes immediately apparent. It doesn't take long for a plant to develop fat white roots. Even after only a couple of years, roots might get as fat as ¾ inches in diameter, radiating out just below the soil surface.

You can chop off a couple of these roots, bring them into the kitchen, scrape them clean, then slice them into marshmallow-size rounds ... well, miniature marshmallow-size rounds. Back in the garden, the plant hardly knows it's had a few roots removed.

Candy time
The candying process, which is described in various old cookbooks for things such as citron peels and angelica roots, works well for marsh mallow roots. The process begins with boiling the root pieces to soften them. This step takes about half an hour.

The next step is to pour off the water and cover the marshmallows-to-be with a syrup made by heating a mixture of 2 parts sugar to 1 part water. If nothing else, homemade marshmallows rival the commercial ones for sweetness.

Finally, root pieces are boiled in the syrup until almost all the liquid evaporates. Once everything cools and hardens a bit, why not assemble a taste panel to see how these old-fashioned, real marshmallows sit on modern palates?

Besides being supersweet, these old-fashioned marshmallows will probably be a bit tough. But they should have a squishiness that bears a vague resemblance to the store-bought product.

Trial by fire
You might also want to subject your homemade marshmallows to the fire test. Stick one on the end of an awl and singe it with a blowtorch, if that's most convenient for a quick test, or go the whole route, with stick and an outdoor fire. You'll find that the home-made marshmallow will brown and give off an odor similar to commercial marshmallows. Home-made marshmallows will not collapse into goo, though.

Marsh mallow flowers
Even if you don't become enthusiastic for home-made marshmallow candy, you might still want to grow marsh mallow plants for their flowers. They are as pretty as you would expect from a plant related to such beauties as hibiscus, rose-of-Sharon and hollyhock.

Marsh mallow makes a sprawling mound about 4 feet high and wide, its stems clothed all summer long in velvety green leaves and blossoms looking like pink hoop skirts.

Although native to coastal marshes from New York down to Florida, marsh mallow will thrive without salt or boggy soil.

Among the native fauna that enjoy this plant are deer, which eat the stems. I wonder if they would like the roots, candied?

Editor’s note: For more on gardening, see the Monitor’s main gardening page, which offers articles on many gardening topics. Also, check out our blog archive and our RSS feed. You may want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. Take part in the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos and enter our contests.

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