Many years ago, we rented a hilltop farm in northern Vermont. The place had no electricity or running water, but we were young and had $300 in savings, a cow named Aster, and a spectacular view of the valley. We were so busy trying to adjust to “the simple life” — hardly simple, as we soon discovered — that we didn’t mind the inconveniences. While hoeing long rows of string beans and corn, I could draw comfort from a nearby stand of tall, old-fashioned hollyhocks growing by a weathered stone wall that showed them off: trumpets of the purest white, the deepest rose, and the prettiest pink.
I vowed to recreate the magic of this memorable planting when we owned our own place. When we finally settled on a backcountry farm in Nova Scotia, though, I found that my dream plants often failed to overwinter in the cold, heavy soil. I searched for tougher hollyhock-like alternatives, and discovered an appealing group of flowering herbs loosely known as “mallows.” Most mallows are less demanding in their growing requirements and offer prolific, beautiful blooms all summer long and well into fall.
Like hollyhocks, these plants belong to the Malvaceae family; its 116 genera comprise more than 1,500 species, including cotton, okra, and the fiber plant kenaf. Herbalists categorize mallows as “innocents” because they contain no harmful properties. In fact, all species in the family contain a soothing mucilaginous sap in their roots, leaves, stems, flowers, and even their seeds. The Latin genus name Malva and the common name “mallow” both come from the Greek word malakos, meaning “soft” or “soothing.” Several species have been used for millennia as food and in preparations to soothe aching limbs, headaches, coughs, and inflammations.
My favorite mallows all grow wild throughout North America, either as natives or naturalized, but they take kindly to cultivation and for this reason have often been the object of hybridization and selection. Don’t confuse these with the weedy common mallow (Malva neglecta), which gardeners in some parts of the country take great pains to eliminate. The mallows I have in mind will be welcome additions to your landscape.
The best introduction to growing mallows is to start with the easiest types. All the following are drought-resistant and grow well in a variety of soils so long as they’re well-drained. Several of them even prefer poor, thin soil.
Musk mallow (Malva moschata)
This European native, naturalized all over Canada and the United States, is often found growing in neglected fields, which is where I first found it on our farm. This mallow is so eager to show what it can do in enriched garden soil that new flowers form on a fresh rosette of leaves close to the ground while older stems are still producing blossoms, so the plant is in constant bloom from early summer to fall. The intricately cut, green leaves are soft and velvety, exuding a musky fragrance (the epithet moschata means “musk-scented”). The loose, bell-like flowers, clustered mainly at the top of the plant, may be pure white, light pink, or soft rose-mauve, all delicately veined and with nearly translucent, wavy-edged petals.
Seeds sown when the soil has warmed produce flowering plants by mid- to late summer the first season. Plants reseed generously — a good thing, because all perennial mallows are short-lived. Although the white form comes true from seed, ones with light-pink flowers will eventually predominate if multihued cultivars are planted close together. To keep pure-white or dark-pink forms, you may wish to propagate them either by division or stem cuttings in early summer. Musk mallow benefits from a little shade in places where summers are very hot.
Annual mallow (Lavatera trimestris)
The annual mallow is a Mediterranean native that has naturalized throughout the southeastern United States. In my northern garden, it blooms only from late summer until the first hard frosts. Nevertheless, I eagerly anticipate its special beauty.
Annual mallow’s large, satiny, fluted trumpets have pencil-thin veins radiating from the center. I cultivated this species for many years before I saw it growing as a roadside weed in Israel, forming a thick hedge that was spectacular in bloom. This natural growth habit suggests its use as a quick-growing summer hedge, handsome even when not in bloom with its distinctive maple-leaf-shaped foliage. Because it’s susceptible to fungal diseases in humid climates, plant annual mallow where it will get plenty of air circulation. Seeds won’t germinate until the soil is 70 degrees Fahrenheit, so sow them indoors in individual pots four to six weeks before the last frost. You can hasten germination by soaking the seeds overnight.
Tree mallow (Lavatera thuringiaca)
The abundant flowers of this perennial Lavatera are smaller than those of annual mallow, but bloom over a longer period, from early summer through fall. The stems may be 4 feet or taller and need some protection from the wind, so choose a sheltered spot and mass it for best effect.
Mallow wort (Malope trifida)
The annual mallow wort is one of only three species in the Malope genus. The large flowers are striking, in shades of rich rose-purple or white with dark centers. Mallow wort needs plenty of room — even a single plant is hard to fit in a moderately sized bed or border. I grow it as a 3-by-3-foot hedge in front of tall, old-fashioned shrub roses.
Mallow wort is best started indoors four to six weeks before the last frost and planted out only when the soil is warm enough to plant beans and corn. Like the Lavateras, mallow wort requires warm temperatures to germinate, but really takes off with the onset of hot summer weather. In colder regions, it will make a fine show in late summer even if the seed was planted in the ground in early summer. In mild-winter areas (Zones 8 through 10), mallow wort seeds may be sown outdoors in late summer or fall for late-winter or spring bloom.
High mallow (Malva sylvestris)
High mallow is also known as “common mallow” and “cheeses,” the latter referring to its flat, round fruits (see photo, left). In my opinion, this rangy plant has the most beautiful of all mallow flowers: loose bells of 1-1/2-inch light-pink or mauve petals veined with dark-purple stripes.
In some forms, the flowers are nearly hidden beneath the large, somewhat wrinkled, ivy-shaped leaves, while in others, the flowers are more exposed. Because of this habit, plant this mallow by itself near a fence or wall. Soil on the thin side will promote stronger stems and more flowers. Because M. sylvestris is the mallow type most useful for cooking (even the sweet, nutlike “cheeses” are edible), you can’t have too many plants — but place them where you want them, because the deep taproots are difficult to dislodge. Depending on the climate, high mallow may be an annual, a biennial, or a short-lived perennial.
M. sylvestris ‘Zebrina’ is a choice plant with a neater habit than that of high mallow, and it has creamy-white flowers with flamed veins radiating from a dark-purple center. Its leaves are large (they can be used for cooking, like those of high mallow), and the flowers are always well-displayed. Impervious to extremes of heat and cold, ‘Zebrina’ performs as well in my northern garden as it does in the South. ‘Zebrina’ begins producing flowers when the plants are little more than a foot tall (it grows to 3 feet) and continues until after the snow flies. ‘Zebrina’ will quickly revert to the wild type. To keep it pure, you can propagate it by rooting stem cuttings.
M. sylvestris var. mauritiana is a naturally occurring variety of high mallow, bearing semi-double, rosy-purple flowers similar in shape to a loosely petaled old-fashioned rose. Where summers are short, it’s best to start this type indoors four to six weeks before the last frost because it requires a longer growing season than the other types. Its habit is intermediate, between those of the rangy high mallow and the more upright ‘Zebrina.’ Place this plant, with its many flowering side branches, in the back of the border or by itself.
Note: High mallow, ‘Zebrina,’ and mauritiana may be short-lived perennials in warmer climates. Don’t plant them near each other because they’ll interbreed and self-seed freely.
The following short-lived perennials require specific habitats (dry or wet). Once they’re established, though, they’ll be around for a long time because they always leave seedlings behind to carry on the flower show.
Common marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)
The original source of the puffiness in the campfire confection of the same name is a perennial herb native to Europe that grows in marshy ground and on riverbanks. Althaea is derived from the Greek word altho, meaning “to cure” or heal. Marshmallow is a widely recognized medicinal, as indicated by its Latin epithet, officinalis, “from the [apothecary’s] storeroom.” All parts of the plant are edible and have been used for food in time of famine. Every part has been used medicinally, especially the roots, which are rich in mucilage. The roots were originally used to create the pillowy, spongy texture of confectionary marshmallows, now achieved with egg white, gelatin, and other ingredients.
The Greek physician Hippocrates recommended marshmallow root decoctions for bruises and wounds. Dioscorides, also a Greek physician, applied it in poultices for insect bites and toothaches. Herbalists today use the soothing mucilage of marshmallow (as well as other mallows) to relieve coughs and irritated mucous membranes, and to ease upset stomachs and urinary disorders.
Marshmallow grows to 5 feet or taller and blooms in summer. Its lax stems bear velvety leaves and groups of 1-1/2-inch-wide, pale lilac-pink flowers with a showy central column of stamens. It’s a suitable plant for a mixed informal border or for naturalizing in damp soils, and is hardy in Zones 4 through 9. Sow seeds in spring, summer, or fall; the latter will germinate the following spring.
Purple poppy mallow (Callirhoe involucrata)
This low-growing herb, native to central North America, was once widely used by the Dakota people to ease bronchial congestion — they would inhale smoke from burning roots. It grows on dry, windy prairies, where it survives by means of a large taproot. The flowers are appropriately called “wine cups.” Just one plant can form a 2-1/2- to 3-foot-wide mat that’s covered with flowers all summer long.
The trick to growing poppy mallow is to provide fast-draining soil. Plants grown from seeds sown in spring will flower in late summer of the same year. Mature plants are difficult to transplant because of the thick root, but immature plants will survive if planted so that the root tops are at the soil surface, like those of strawberry plants. The most common cause of failure is root rot from moisture that collects around the tops of the plants during winter and early spring.
Prairie mallow (Sidalcea spp.)
Sidalcea is a composite of the names of two related genera, Sida (to which it once belonged) and Alcea. (Sida is derived from the Greek word for a water plant.) The fragrant, dainty, bell-like flowers grow along slender stems with lobed foliage, giving the plant the appearance of a miniature hollyhock. If you cut the plants back after the first flush of flowers, they’ll bloom all summer until frost.
In contrast to purple poppy mallow’s requirement of dry soil to survive the winter, prairie mallow prefers moist (but not soggy) soil and a somewhat sheltered spot away from driving wind. Prairie mallow’s pyramidal form and dainty flowers show to advantage in front of evergreen shrubbery. You should water prairie mallows during dry spells, and divide established plants every third year.
Swamp rose mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)
Despite my dedication to growing every mallow I could find, I at first avoided this species because of its outrageous size. In the wild, swamp rose mallow (also known as “hardy hibiscus” and “crimson-eyed rose mallow”) grows in marshes from Indiana south to Florida. It abounds in mucilage, especially in its leaves and roots, and for this reason it was once used in preparations to soothe ailing lungs and soften roughened skin. Plants of this species can grow to 7 feet tall.
Visualizing swamp rose mallow in containers, I decided to try growing some from seed. I soaked the seeds first for an hour in hot water; germination takes 10 to 30 days at 75 to 80 degrees. Four months later, I got enormous satisfaction in seeing the first huge buds burst into 9-inch trumpets. In my northern garden, I take the containers indoors over winter. In Zones 5 through 7, it’s advisable to mulch plants growing in the garden for winter protection.
Mallows in the Kitchen
The flowers of high mallow (also known as “common mallow”) may be used to embellish hot or cold soups, or be lightly pressed into cake frostings, chilled puddings, whips, gelatins, and mousses. The flavor and texture has been described as “slightly sweet” and “coolly jellified.”
Soothing Bee Sting Lotion
Steep fresh leaves from marshmallow or musk mallow in cool water. (Water is the best solvent for drawing out the beneficial mucilage.) Strain, and then dab the infusion on bee stings.
Jo Ann Gardner lives with her husband in a one-room schoolhouse in New York’s Champlain Valley. Her books include Heirloom Flower Gardens and Living with Herbs.