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 below. We were so busy trying to adjust to “the simple life” (hardly simple, we soon discovered) that we didn’t mind the inconveniences, especially as the place had been beautifully landscaped. Every vista had its charm. Hoeing long rows of string beans and corn, I could draw comfort from a nearby stand of tall, old-fashioned, single-flowered hollyhocks growing by a weathered stone wall that showed them off to advantage: trumpets of the purest white, the deepest rose, the prettiest pinks.
Someday, I vowed, when we owned our own place, I would re-create the magic of this memorable planting. However, when we finally settled on a rugged backcountry farm on Cape Breton Island in northeastern Nova Scotia, I found that my dream plants often failed to overwinter in the cold, heavy soil. In my search for tougher hollyhocklike alternatives, I discovered an appealing group of flowering herbs loosely known as mallows, most of which are less demanding in their cultural requirements and which offer prolific, beautiful blooms all summer and well into the fall.
Like hollyhocks, these plants belong to the Malvaceae, or mallow family; its 116 genera include more than 1500 species, among them economically valuable plants such as cotton, okra, and the fiber plant kenaf. Herbalists term them “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. Their healing virtues are honored in the Latin names of the family and the type genus Malva as well as the common name mallow; all come from the Greek word malakos, “soft” or “soothing”. Several species have been used for millennia as food and in preparations to soothe aching limbs, headaches, coughs, and inflammations.
The mallows in my garden all have translucent or satiny flowers with five petals radiating from a prominent central bushy column of stamens that attract bees in search of pollen and nectar. The individual petals, some of them attractively veined or noticeably notched, form cups, bells, or trumpets that range from 11/2 inches wide in high mallow (Malva sylvestris) to 9 inches in the enormous flowers of swamp rose mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos). Perhaps the reason for mallows’ neglect among herb enthusiasts is precisely this embarrassment of riches. Plants with abundant, showy blooms—characteristic of mallows—are not generally regarded as herbs, but these not only fulfill a variety of landscaping needs, they have several interesting contemporary herbal applications as well.
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 to produce superior garden plants. Don’t confuse these with the weedy common mallow (M. neglecta), which gardeners in some parts of the country take great pains to eliminate. The mallows that I have in mind will, I assure you, be welcome additions to your landscape.
The best introduction to growing mallows is to start with the easiest types. All of the following are drought resistant and grow well in a variety of soils as long as they are well drained. Several of them even prefer poor, thin soil.
Musk mallow, a European native, is naturalized all over Canada and the United States; it’s 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 are already forming on a fresh rosette of leaves close to the ground while older stems are still producing blossoms, so that 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 wavy-edged, nearly translucent petals.
In the landscape, these mallows tone down bright red salvias and combine strikingly with gray and silvery-leaved herbs such as artemisias and lamb’s-ears. 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, if different-colored plants are planted close together, light pink–flowered ones eventually predominate: to keep pure white or dark pink forms, you may wish to propagate them vegetatively, either by division or by stem cuttings taken in early summer. Where summers are very hot, musk mallow benefits from a little shade.
I found the closely related perennial hollyhock mallow, also from Europe, growing in a garden at the edge of the North Atlantic. I was impressed by its rose-pink flowers—slightly larger and darker than those of musk mallow—and the way in which it withstood stiff winds without staking. This mallow looks like a bushy hollyhock (the cultivar name ‘Fastigiata’ means “upright”) with many side branches laden with blooms. If planted in rich soil, these will bend toward the ground. To prevent this, plant hollyhock mallow in light soil near or at the back of the border to give its flower-bearing stems room to spread. In areas with hot summers, hollyhock mallow, like musk mallow, appreciates light shade.
The annual satin rose mallow is a Mediterranean native that is naturalized throughout the southeastern United States. The genus was named for the brothers Lavater, sixteenth-century Swiss naturalists. In my northern garden, it blooms only from late summer until the first few hard frosts. Nevertheless, I eagerly anticipate its special beauty.
Satin rose mallow’s large, satiny, fluted trumpets range from white and pink shades to carmine rose, with pencil-thin veins—stronger than those of musk and hollyhock mallow—radiating from the center. I had been cultivating 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 is susceptible to fungal diseases in humid climates, plant satin rose mallow where it will get plenty of air circulation (not against buildings or close to a fence, for instance).
Because the seeds won’t germinate until the soil is well warmed (70°F), sow them indoors four to six weeks before the last frost, using individual pots so that the roots won’t be disturbed during transplanting outdoors. Germination can be hastened by soaking the seeds overnight in warm water.
This species is one of several perennial lavateras deserving of the herb gardener’s attention. Its abundant, pretty, notch-petaled flowers are smaller than those of satin rose mallow but bloom over a longer period, from early summer through fall. Its stems, which may be 4 feet or taller, need some protection from the wind, so choose a sheltered spot and mass it for best effect. Although container-grown plants grow to only half the height of those grown in the ground, they can be conveniently moved where you want them, to fill a bare spot in the landscape or decorate a deck, for example.
The annual mallowwort, native to the Mediterranean region, is one of only four species in the genus. The large flowers are striking, in shades of rich rose-purple or white with darker centers on bushy plants with maple-shaped leaves similar to those of Lavatera. The shell pink cultivar ‘Pink Queen’ is gorgeous. Mallowwort needs plenty of room; even a single plant is hard to accommodate in a bed or border of moderate size. I grow it as a 3-by-3-foot hedge planted in front of tall old-fashioned shrub roses that bloom only once, in early summer; after the roses are spent, the mallowwort takes up the slack with a magnificent display from midsummer to fall.
Mallowwort 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, mallowwort requires warm temperatures to germinate, but with the onset of hot summer weather it really takes off. In colder regions, it will make a fine show in late summer even if the seed is planted in the ground in early summer. In mild-winter areas (hardiness zones 8 through 10), mallowwort seeds may be sown outdoors in late summer or fall for late-winter or spring bloom.
Both high mallow and M. neglecta are known also as common mallow and cheeses, the latter in reference to their flat, round fruits, but there’no difficulty in telling the two species apart. Whereas M. neglecta is a creeping weed with 1/2-inch pale rose-lavender or white flowers, high mallow is a rangy plant with, in my opinion, the most beautiful of all mallow flowers: loose bells of 11/2-inch light pink or mauve wavy-edged petals veined with dark purple stripes radiating from the center of the bloom. This plant is a common wildflower of the English countryside and may be the mallow to which Job refers when he asks, “Can that which has no taste, be eaten without salt? Or is there any taste in the juice of the mallow?” Evidently, he had never eaten mallow pie—
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 its habit, it is best to plant this mallow by itself near a fence or wall; soil on the thin side will promote stronger stems and more flowers. Because this is the type that’s most useful for cooking (even the sweet, nutlike “cheeses” are edible), you can’t have too many plants, but plant them where you want them: their deep taproots are difficult to dislodge. Depending on the climate, high mallow may be an annual, biennial, or short-lived perennial.
No one seems to know the origin of Zebrina mallow, but those who have discovered it enjoy it as a choice plant with a neater habit than that of high mallow and lovely creamy white flowers with almost black flamed veining radiating from a dark purple center. Its leaves are large (they can be used for cooking like those of high mallow), but Zebrina’s flowers are always well displayed. Both of these mallows seem impervious to extremes of heat and cold, performing as well in my northern garden as they do in southern gardens. Zebrina begins producing flowers when little more than a foot tall (it grows to 3 feet) and continues until after the snow flies.
A naturally occurring variety of high mallow, M. s. var. mauritiana bears semidouble, rich 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, as you would high mallow.
Note: These three mallows may be short-lived perennials in warmer climates. Because they interbreed and self-seed freely, do not plant them near each other or Zebrina will quickly revert to the wild type. To keep it pure, you can propagate it by rooting stem cuttings during the summer.
The following short-lived perennials require specific habitats (dry or wet), but once accommodated, they will be around for a long time because they always leave seedlings behind to carry on the flower show.
Purple poppy mallow is a low-growing herb native to central North America that was once widely used by the Dakota Indians, who inhaled the smoke from its burned roots to ease bronchial congestion (they called it “smoke-treatment medicine”). It grows in dry, windy prairies, where it has survived by means of a large, fleshy taproot. The flowers are appropriately called wine cups. Just one plant can form a 21/2- to 3-foot-wide mat that is covered with flowers all summer. It is stunning when planted in a dry wall.
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 the winter and early spring.
Sidalcea is a composite name formed from 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, and Alcea, from a Greek word meaning “to cure”.) The prairie hollyhock was not grown much in gardens here until recently; now we welcome its hybrid forms (many developed in Europe) into our gardens as though it were a distinguished European plant when, in fact, it is native to our western prairies. The fragrant, dainty, bell-like flowers grow along slender stems with lobed foliage, giving the plant the appearance of a miniature hollyhock. If the plants are cut back after their first flush of flowers, they will bloom all summer until frost.
In contrast to purple poppy mallow’s requirement of dry soil to survive the winter, prairie mallow prefers moist, though not soggy soil and a somewhat sheltered spot away from driving wind. Prairie mallow’s pyramidal forms and dainty flowers show to advantage in front of evergreen shrubbery. Water prairie mallows during dry spells and divide established plants every third year.
Despite my dedication to growing every mallow I can find, I at first avoided this species because of its outrageous size (both the flower and the stem). In the wild, swamp rose mallow grows in marshes from Indiana south to Florida and Alabama. 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, but its hybrids include shorter forms, such as the very dwarf Disco Belle series, which reach only 18 to 20 inches in height.
Visualizing swamp rose mallows 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°F. Four months later, I got enormous satisfaction in seeing the first huge buds burst into 9-inch Brobdingnagian trumpets: brilliant cerise with a scarlet eye, white with a red eye, pure white, and rosy pink. In my northern garden, I take the containers indoors over the winter. In Zones 5 through 7, it is advisable to give plants in the ground a winter mulch.
Mallows lend color and texture to flower crafts such as potpourri, and they require almost no processing. As the flowers ripen on the plant, the corollas fold up like dry envelopes and drop to the ground. During their season of bloom, dozens can be harvested from a single plant. Large, bright flowers are especially worth gathering.
High mallow and its varieties press especially well and are highly suitable for decorating stationery, pressing between two pieces of glass for a hanging ornament, or creating collages. Use fresh, newly opened flowers, picked after the dew has evaporated. You can get good results just pressing them under a weight between several sheets of newspaper; change the paper after a day or so.
I like to use mallows in the kitchen. The flowers of high mallow and its varieties may be used to embellish hot or cold soups or lightly pressed into cake frostings, chilled puddings, whips, gelatins, or mousses. “Slightly sweet and coolly jellified” is the way one aficionado described their flavor and texture.
Jo Ann Gardner lives with her husband on a working farm on Cape Breton Island in northeastern Nova Scotia, where she grows heirloom flowers. She is the author of The Heirloom Garden (Pownal, Vermont: Storey Communications, 1992).
Note: Some of these sources carry other mallows not mentioned in this article. Try them!
Arrowhead Alpines, PO Box 857, Fowlerville, MI 48836. Plant list, seed list, $2 each. Althaea officinalis, Callirhoë involucrata, Lavatera thuringiaca, Malva alcea ‘Fastigiata’, M. moschata ‘Alba’, M. sylvestris var. mauritiana. Plants and seeds. Hibiscus moscheutos Disco Belle series, M. moschata, Sidalcea ‘Party Girl’. Seeds.
Goodwin Creek, PO Box 83, Williams, OR 97544. Catalog $1. A. officinalis, M. moschata, M. sylvestris. Plants.
Richters, 357 Hwy. 47, Goodwood, ON, Canada L0C 1A0. Catalog free. A. officinalis. Plants and seeds. M. moschata, M. sylvestris, M. s. var. mauritiana. Seeds.
Thompson And Morgan, PO Box 1308, Jackson, NJ 08527-0308. Catalog free. A. officinalis, L. trimestris ‘Loveliness’, ‘Mont Blanc’, ‘Mont Rose’, ‘Silver Cup’, ‘Pink Beauty’, Malope trifida ‘Pink Queen’, ‘White Queen’, Malva sylvestris ‘Zebrina’, M. s. var. mauritiana. Seeds.
Van Bourgondien, 245 Farmingdale Rd., PO Box 1000, Babylon, NY 11702. Catalog free. L. thuringiaca ‘Barnsley’, ‘Burgundy Wine’, S. ‘Brilliant’, ‘Elsie Heugh’. Plants.
Wayside Gardens, Hodges, SC 29695-0001. Catalog free. H. moscheutos Disco Belle series, M. alcea ‘Fastigiata’, S. ‘Elsie Heugh’. Plants.
White Flower Farm, Plantsmen, PO Box 50, Litchfield, CT 06759-0050. Catalog free. L. thuringiaca ‘Barnsley’, M. alcea ‘Fastigiata’, M. moschata ‘Alba’, M. sylvestris ‘Zebrina’. Plants