The mallow family contains over twenty edible species of herbaceous plants that can be annual, biennial or perennial. A number are considered weeds while others like hollyhocks and hibiscus are treasured garden plants and marsh mallow is a well known healing plant. All contain large amounts of mucilage which makes them uniquely special as food and medicine. The genus name Malva is Greek meaning soft or soothing, which refers to the mucilage and the recorded history of using mallow goes back through antiquity. So it has been around a very long time!
Some of the weeds you might recognize in this family are dwarf mallow (Malva neglecta), tree mallow (Malva dendromorpha) a biennial shrub which grows up to 2 m tall and, creeping mallow (Modiola caroliniana) a mat forming perennial ground cover.
Mallows grow all over the world on neglected, bare ground around the edges of gardens, walkways, and creeping mallow grows in lawns. Before I knew creeping mallow was edible I cursed it because it forms a matt, putting down roots at the
nodes (where the leaves come out of the stem) and it can grow a metre out from the base and so is very hard to get out. Now I see it in a completely different light as in droughts it is the only green thing in a brown, dry lawn. And it is very edible with light green, round to heart-shaped leaves that alternate on the stem.
All mallow flowers have five petals and vary in color from pink to mauve with stripes of darker pink or mauve. Other members like hollyhock and hibiscus vary from pink or red to white and yellow or even multi colored. Creeping mallow has reddish orange flowers.
Each flower has both male and female reproductive parts. In the centre of the flower the pistil sticks out, and is very visible in hibiscus flowers. The ovary being located at the base and this is what ripens to form the round fruit with ten to twelve segments that are said to look like a cheese, hence ‘cheese weed’ is one of its common names.
Mallow is an amazing plant for making smoothies, juices, soups, milks, desserts, for thickening recipes and for drying to make green powder, which I did after visiting Setha and Roddy of Setha’s Seeds in Hawkes Bay, where they had a huge patch of dwarf mallow. It grew where the cows had disturbed the ground. I was in heaven! Mallow is worth gathering as it is high in calcium and magnesium, as well as potassium, zinc, iron, selenium, sodium, iodine, vitamin B complex, vitamin A, and vitamin C.
The chopped leaves and stems steeped in cold water for several hours or overnight, turn the water into the consistency of egg whites. It’s true I’ve done it and then used the slimy water to hydrate my face and to drink. Vegan recipes could use this as an egg substitute.
The leaves are mild tasting and a pleasant addition to salads, casseroles and soups. The whole plant blended, after soaking and strained makes a thickened soup base.
Hibiscus flowers make a lovely tea, a tradition in Mexico called jaimaca. Sweeten it with honey and you have a hydrating and revitalizing drink.
Mallow’s gelatinous, slimy nature has the effect of drawing, clearing, lubricating, cleansing, soothing and gently removing toxins from the body. The 35 percent mucilage it contains soothes internal mucous membranes e.g. the intestinal tract and externally the skin, softening it and gently tightening tissues – it feels very nice on my face. The leaves crushed and used as a poultice draw out boils and acne and heal sprains and bruises. It also eases nettle and insect stings.
The mucilage is a soluble fibre that absorbs water, increasing the bulk in the intestinal tract helping to prevent constipation. It is also said to increase immunity by stimulating macrophages and white blood cells. A further interesting feature is that mallow contains salicylic acid, the natural source of aspirin. Make a tea or juice of it to relieve pain or headaches.
There are so many good things about this plant that it could be a daily addition to our diets – it is in mine.
Hollyhock fruit salad
Gather some hollyhock flowers and arrange some summer fruits in and around the pretty flowers. I used mandarin segments, blueberries, wild raspberries and pieces of plum.
1 cup sunflower seeds, soaked and dried
1 cup pumpkin seeds, or cashews, soaked
1 cup mallow greens, chopped
1 cup mallow water
1 lemon, juiced
1 small clove garlic
2 tsp salt
Process all the ingredients in a food processor or blender until smooth. Serve with carrot or celery sticks or on crackers. Place in an airtight container and keep in the fridge.
The Wisdom of Weeds: 13 Essential Plants for Human Survival by Katrina Blair