Healing Mallows

These flowering herbs will soothe your body’s aches and inflammations while pleasing your eyes with their prolific blooms.

| Summer 2017

  • Most mallows are undemanding in their growing requirements and offer prolific, beautiful blooms all summer long and well into fall.
    Photo by iStock/AtsuoKomori
  • Tree mallow (Lavatera thuringiaca) blooms abundantly from early summer through fall.
    Photo by iStock/graffoto8
  • Low-growing purple poppy mallow (Callirhoe involucrata) has a deep taproot that helps it survive in dry, windy conditions.
    Photo by Flickr/Patrick Standish
  • 'Zebrina' mallow (Malva sylvestris 'Zebrina') grows to 3 feet and has large leaves.
    Photo courtesy www.RareSeeds.com
  • Prairie mallow (Sidalcea spp.) prefers moist soil and a sheltered spot.
    Photo by iStock/schnuddel
  • Swamp rose mallow grows in marshes.
    Photo by iStock/SmadarSonyaStrauss
  • High mallow, or "cheeses" (Malva sylvestris), bears seed heads that resemble cheese wheels.
    Photo by Wikimedia/Stefan.Lefnaer
  • Mauritiana (Malva sylvestris var. mauritiana) requires a longer growing season than other types of mallows.
    Photo by Flickr/TANAKA Juuyoh
  • Mallow wort (Malope trifida) needs plenty of room for its large flowers.
    Photo courtesy www.RareSeeds.com
  • All parts of common marshmallows (Althaea officinalis) are edible and have been used medicinally.
    Photo by iStock/LianeM
  • Swamp rose mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) can grow to 7 feet and produces bountiful mucilage in its leaves and roots.
    Photo by iStock/KenWiedemann

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.

Easy-Growing Mallows

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)



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