Some plants seem to be our constant companions, no matter where we live. Often, they will also be some of our really useful species. It will soon become clear that the common mallow (Malva sylvestris) is one of these plants.
Instead of being viewed as a weed, hollyhocks can more usefully be described as some of our gloriously bountiful plant helpers. Various species of mallows have long been used for food and medicine, wherever they are found native, and especially in the Middle East and Asia. You also won’t have to go far to find common mallow in most of Europe, North Africa, and Southwest Asia.
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Common hollyhock can be found growing upright or prostrate, which can initially cause confusion because it is easy to assume that they could be two different species.
The kidney-shaped or palmately lobed leaves of mallow are noticeably wrinkled, typically with toothed margins. The leaves often show a purple spot in the center of the leaf base and this can also be seen running down the petiole in some specimens. In other specimens, the purple spots and coloration are completely absent. Malva leaves have long petioles. Its dark green foliage hints at a recognized drought tolerance.
During flowering, the leaves appear alternately on the stems. Holding a leaf conveys the roughness of the surface. But rip and crush one, and you discover a familiar pattern: mucilage. You will soon experience a slimy, sticky feeling between your fingers. All parts of the plant contain mucilage.
In flower, plants in the family Malvaceae produce five large, notched petals on each open flower. Common mallow has showy pink petals with hints of darker colors. At the center of the flower is a pollen-laden column of fused stamens. This surrounds the stigma, which rises above the spine.
Mallow is known to seed freely. Round seed pods, known as “cheeses,” soon follow the bloom. Once, children chewed on them on their way to and from school. The pods are held on stems, close to the flowering stem.
Mallow is found in most soils, from coastal to marginal upland habitats, and most environments are suitable for this hardy plant. It loves both wastelands and grasslands; gravel both as shorelines, and path and roadsides, as well as hedges.
Leaves, flowers, seed pods, roots
Leaves, in spring; late spring flowers; early summer seed pods. Roots can be harvested from larger rosettes as long as they are large enough.
Medicinal and nutritional components
Vitamins A, B, C, E; inulin; mucilage; phenols; flavonoids; essential fatty acids; fiber; calcium; magnesium; zinc; selenium; potassium.
Traditional and contemporary uses
As with many wild food plants, common mallow has also had a long history of medicinal use. Due to their high mucilage content, mallows are excellent demulcent soothing herbs, especially for cases of inflammation, whether for the urinary, digestive or respiratory systems.
Pregnant women or new mothers might like to know that mallow leaves can provide useful amounts of iron, as well as being quite rich in zinc and most vitamins.
All of the Mallow family with the exception of the cotton plant (Gossypium hirsutum) are reportedly edible. With its high mucilage content, the leaves can be taken as an emergency antidote for irritation or burns that can be caused by accidental consumption of pungent plants of the buttercup family.
Creative cooks can substitute mallow for spinach in many dishes, such as soups, salads, gnocchi, and quiche. I have even fried larger malva leaves for just a second in hot oil to make ‘popadoms’. Malva is also an excellent addition to soups, as the mucilage helps to thicken them.
In Jewish culture, mallow has been considered the ‘most important plant in the local gathering society‘. Every spring mallow is harvested in the field. Its common name in both Hebrew and Arabic translates as “bread”.
During the 1948 war, when Jerusalem was under siege, mallow was an important famine crop, and Independence Day is still celebrated every year with a traditional dish made from mallow leaves.
The common mallow can substitute the relative of the family. Corchorus olitorius also known as ‘jute malva’, when making the Egyptian/Middle Eastern dish ‘Molokhia’. This traditional dish is usually served with chicken.
In China, malva roots are a popular and common ingredient in the preparation of hearty yet medicinally potent soups and broths. The inulin-rich taproots of several different species of mallow have been used, including common mallow.
The seed pods can be substituted for most of the egg white if making mallow meringues is desired. Simply boil the peeled seed pods with 3 parts water, 1 part seed pods, and reduce the liquid by half. For every half cup of liquid, add an egg white, ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar, a little vanilla and castor sugar, then beat until foamy and stiff, like meringues.
You can find out more about Britain’s wild plants by visiting my website www.wildplantguide.co.uk and following me on twitter (@Wildplant_guide) or by booking one of my regular foraging walks or courses throughout the year.
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