Posts Tagged ‘Mallow’

When I am out walking just about anywhere in central California, one of the plants that I see growing all around me is Mallow. From back yards in Berkeley to sidewalk edges in Sacramento to fields in the Sierra foothills, mallow, with its deep green leaves and small flowers, is all around us. But, these common weeds are often overlooked, and I think this is a real shame because they are such a delicious food!

The name mallow refers to plants of the family Malvaceae, which contains close to 2,300 species worldwide. They are found throughout the temperate and subtropical regions of Europe, Asia and Africa, and have also been introduced to North America where they are doing quite well, indeed. This family contains numerous important crops plants such as Cotton, Hibiscus, and Okra. Other species of mallow are planted as decorative garden flowers or considered agricultural pests. They grow pretty much everywhere including lawns, along edges of fields and roads, and often in our own gardens.

As a food plant, mallow has one of the longest recorded histories on record. The ancient Greek poet, Horace (65 BCE to 8 BCE), was said to enjoy a simple diet of “olives, endives, and mallows.” Greens can be eaten raw in salads or cooked as either a saute green or in soups. The seeds have many medicinal properties as well, and the flowers and buds are also edible. One aspect of mallow that I find makes it particularly satisfying as an edible is that it grows so abundantly. Large plants can be found that will supply several meals of easy-to-gather leaves, and will re-seed themselves to allow for future foraging.

Additionally, mallow plants are very easy to identify. They have round leaves that range from 2 to 5 inches across, and that grow on alternating sides of the stems. The stems and undersides of the leaves are covered with small hairs. These hairs can be somewhat bristly, especially on larger leaves, so only the smaller leaves should be used in salads. The hairs soften when exposed to heat and so do not add any unpleasant textures to a cooked dish; therefore larger leaves are fine to eat as long as you are planning on cooking them. Plants can grow in several forms from low-lying herbaceous plants only a few inches off the ground, to large bushes that can be 6 feet tall, or more. Their small, five-petal flowers (0.25 to 2 inches across) range from white to pink to purple.

Two interesting side notes on the members of the mallow family. One is that they display a characteristic called protandry which means that young plants are all males and they change to being female later in life. The other is that it is thought that the color mauve got its name from the French word for the mallow plant.

So watch for mallow when you are out and about, and enjoy!

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