Common Name: Hollyhock | Scientific Name: Althea Rosea
Chapter from Healing Plants of the Bible
Holly hock Alcea rosea Malvaceae Job 6:6-7 Can that which is tasteless be eaten without salt, or is there any taste in the slime of the purselane? My appetite refuses to touch them, they are as food that is loathsome to me. That guy in charge of the mistranslation department of the Bible was certainly busy when it came to plants. The plant mentioned here, malluach in Hebrew, is most likely a member of the malva family. Members of this family include okra, hollyhock, hibiscus, marsh mallow, and cotton. One thing for sure, it was not purselane. Some authorities say that the plant was member of the Atriplex or salt wort family. I reject this theory as clearly Job is griping about eating something that is devoid of flavour, the salt worts are known to taste salty! In my estimation the plant translated here is most likely hollyhock. As I am writing the book, you will have to go along with my supposition.
The mallow family is famous world wide for the tasteless slime the family members produce. If you have eaten okra, you know what I am talking about. Many people refuse to eat the okra as they cannot bear the sensation of the slime in their mouths. This slime, or more correctly put, mucilage, is characteristic of this entire family of plants. The slime they produce is a complex sugar chain made of indigestible sugars. There are different kinds of sugars, some the body can absorb, others it cannot. The sugar chain responsible for this families slime cannot be digested by the body and passes from the mouth to the anus in an unaltered slimy state. We heard a bit about mucilage in the sections dealing with aloe and flax. Once again, we are dealing with a demulcent and emollient producing plant.
The thing about the mallow slime is that it is utterly tasteless, much they way Job described it. The other reason I am convinced he is talking about a mallow, as the family members are known, is for the following reason. These plants are rampant growers and have traditionally been used as starvation food by the poor. Job fits the bill of someone desperate for a meal and it was persons such as this that relied upon these slime producing plants for sustenance. Suffice it to say, Herod did not order up a meal made of mallows from the royal kitchen. The people he chased into the hills probably ate more than one mallow based meal.
In Arabic, these plants are known as khubieza or little loaf plants as their seeds resemble tiny pitta breads. In the Bible, the plant eaten by Job is called halamit and this has an interesting connection. The word hallam in Hebrew means healthy and the plants name may have come from its use in medicine.
Malva sylvestris and Malva nicaeensis are both native to the Holy Land and have been eaten in times of famine in those parts. I can’t say that anybody raves about them as a source of food, but they would fill your stomach and keep the hunger pains away. It is also possible that Job refers to another plant, Alcea rosea, the common holly hock. It is also native to Asia minor and can be found growing wild in the Holy Land. Which mallow Job had to eat is not known for certain.
You may be wondering what on earth you could do with a tasteless slime, the answer is lots. This mucilage is incredibly soothing to irritated tissue, whether the sore tissue on the skin or mucous membrane. You may remember we discussed mucilages when we looked at flax seed. The mucilage produced by mallows is lighter and not as sticky as the mucilage that surrounds the flax seed. Each mucilage containing plant produces its own unique mucilage, and each mucilage has a slightly different application in medicine as a consequence.
Let’s start with its use of mallows slime as a soother of angry skin. There could be no skin unhappier than that which has been attacked by a stinging insect. Gerard had this to say about mallows and insect stings. “The leaves of the mallowes are good against the stinging of scorpions, bees, wasps, and such like; if a man be first appointed with the leaves stamped with a little oyle, he shal not be stung at all, Dioscorides saith.” I can’t say whether it will protect your from being stung, but I can tell you it will help if you have been stung by one of these beasts.
Two summers ago, I was back in the states visiting my mother. My nephews were out in the yard playing when my oldest Nephew Nicholas came in screaming. He had disturbed a hornets nest and they had stung his arm many times. There is nothing more horrible than a six year old in that kind of pain. I ran out to the garden, grabbed holly hock leaves, and quickly ground them with olive oil in the cuisine art. I applied the paste to the stings and within half an hour Nicholas was feeling better. Later that afternoon the swelling was gone. This is remarkable because hornet stings can cause pain for days if left untreated. If you have kids, it pays to have some holly hock around to treat the occasional insect bite.
The ancient physicians noticed long ago that when the slime of the mallow family was applied, pain disappeared. Gerard said this, “leaves are of the power to digest, mitigate paine, and to concoct; they be with good effect mixed with fomentations and pultesses against paines of the sides, of the stone and of the bladder, in a bath also they seem to take away any manner of paine.”
In theory, sore skin feels better when you apply a mucilage because it forms a buffer layer between the nerve endings and the air. We saw this theory when we were reading about aloe. You know when you burn a finger cooking, the finger feels better when it is in cold water, but as soon as the water dries it starts smarting. This is because the nerve endings are damaged and when dry and exposed to the air, they transmit more pain signals. Placing some mallow slime keeps the nerve endings protected from the outside world and thus transmits less pain.
However, this protecting quality doesn’t explain these plants ability to relieve pain in the case of insect stings. That pain is deep in the tissue as the pain results from the insect injecting poison into the tissue. My theory is that plant contains chemicals yet to be discovered that work as an anti-inflammatories. This is just conjecture, but the fact that holly hock syrup will make a sore throat feel better and that holly hock leaves ground and applied to a bee sting will take the sting out, is a matter of historic record.
Stuart Fitzsimmons was not familiar with the use of hollyhock in medicine but was quite forthcoming when it came to the European mallow, Althea officinalis. “It is one of the major demulcent. The root is a soothing agent for the stomach and the bowel. From mouth to anus, any kind of inflammation or irritation will be made to feel better with althea. Ulcers, hiatus hernias, gastritis, are all treated with Althea. It really does the job. You can take as much as you like as often as you like because its perfectly safe. A teaspoonful of the ground root mixed with a cup of water taken three times a day will make an upset GIT feel better and heal faster. The whole pealed root is given to children to help with teething as it reduces their pain.”
Stuart seconds my theory that mallow slime has an anti-inflammatory action by mentioning its use for teething children. A child cutting a tooth can carry on something fierce, the screaming and wailing is more than a little irritating. In Europe, mothers stick marshmallow root in their teething childrens mouths to speed the process of the tooth cutting through the gum and to reduce the pain. Mothers have used this root for so long no one can estimate when they started doing so. I was in Paris last week and saw more than one tot with a marshmallow stick in its mouth!
Joseph Nasr, our Lebanese herbalist, was quite familiar with the hollyhock and its medicinal uses. “It is a very tall native plant with beautiful flowers, flowers that are extensively used in cough. An infusion is the standard treatment for coughs in Lebanon. A handful of flowers, say four flowers is infused in hot water for ten minutes,sweetened with honey and drunk several times a day. This is excellent for a dry irritating cough or the common cold. A combination of hollyhock flowers and anise seed infused with hot water and thickened with sugar makes a lovely cough syrup.”
Mr.Nasr mentions another mallow that might be the mallow of Job. It grows all over Lebanon and Israel. “Malva sylvestris is the most commonly used herb in lebanon, every body knows it and uses for a wide variety of conditions, cough , to heal and sooth the gastro-intestinal tract, in diarrhoea, it is seen as almost a panacea for whatever ails you. Flowers and the plant do not taste bad, in fact the leaves are boiled to make a bland soup. It is the most commonly used folk medicine in Lebanon, people will tell you it kills infections and can be used as an antibiotic. It is a popular, popular herb.”
In truth we don’t know which mallow poor Job had to eat during his life of living hell. Most of us have hollyhocks in the garden and if you want to use them for medicine, you don’t have to travel far to get your supply. The flowers of the plant can be made into a fabulous cough syrup and upset stomach aid. Remember, it soothes tissue, if you have a sore throat or sore stomach from food poisoning or overdrinking, this syrup will make you feel a lot better. It is simple to make: take equal parts of holly hock flowers and sugar and place them in a sealed container. Leave them to sit until a syrup forms. Then blend the mix and store in the refrigerator until it is needed. A teaspoonful of this during an attack of gastritis or tonsillitis will do wonders. It is perfectly benign and can be used as often as is needed.