Tracing marshmallow’s local roots

Herb growers Katie Grear + Mike Adams and tea maker Jessie Dean start with a seed and take marshmallow all the way to the tea cup.

The owner of Kestrel Herb Farm with a marshmallow plant

These marshmallows come straight from the ground.

Photo via Darby Communications

Picture a chilly winter day (not unlike this one) — a little frost on the windows, a few clouds in the sky. Hot chocolate feels a little decadent, so you decide to warm up with a cup of tea in a flavor that’s the next best thing. It’s a blend of cacao nibs, peppermint, and marshmallow.

But you’re not going to look down and find white, pillowy confections floating in your mug. For Jessie Dean and Asheville Tea Company, this marshmallow comes straight from the ground — by way of Katie Grear + Mike Adams of Kestrel Herb Farm. So we sat down with these local purveyors of this particular herb to see how marshmallow takes root.

Let it grow

When they’re mass-produced these days, the marshmallows that we know and love around the campfire typically aren’t manufactured with the marshmallow plant. They used to be made with powdered marshmallow root, but now it’s generally gelatin in the recipe. The marshmallow plant, though, is still known for both culinary and gentle medicinal qualities (like helping with a sore throat or digestion).

“Marshmallow has always been on our grow list because it grows well here, and it’s a popular herb,” says Grear. “I think that even any home gardener could pick up some plants. The bees really love it too; it’s been an amazing pollinator.”

Marshmallow roots at Kestrel Herb Farm

Like its name suggests, the plant prefers wetter climates.

Photo via Darby Communications

Kestrel Herb Farm harvests marshmallow seeds to reuse each year and sells the roots, leaves, and even flowers to some extent. And if you’re thinking of the small herbs sitting in pots on your front porch, you’d be wrong. Marshmallow is actually quite a large plant — Adams says they grow around six or seven feet tall.

Once the plant is harvested — usually May or June for the leaves, through the summer for the flowers, and into mid-fall for the roots — Kestrel dries the herbs for distribution both to individual buyers and wholesale. Companies like Dean’s get big bags of the dried herbs that have been broken down into manageable sizes. Asheville Tea Company will then typically mill them further to more easily blend with the other ingredients and to work with the equipment for making the tea bags.

Take a sip

Tea blends on spoons

The “Snow Day” blend is meant to evoke nostalgia.

Photo via Darby Communications

In the “Snow Day” tea, the marshmallow herb is mild, sweet, and earthy, and Dean says it was inspired by memories of growing up in WNC. The blend uses both the root and leaf to get the full functionality of the plant.

“From a tea-blending perspective,” says Dean, “marshmallow leaf has a little cling to it. And so it helps it helps the blend stay together. But then I definitely wanted to use the root too, because of the tradition of marshmallow making and the potency. For me, it’s about finding those herbs that pull in those nostalgic memories but also speak to the herbal traditions here in Western North Carolina.”

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