Beautiful Mallows

| April/May 1996


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.

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