Before I’d ever seen a mallow plant, I studied pictures in plant manuals and read that it’s one of the commonest wild plants of vacant lots and fields. I had a clear mental image of the leaf – roundish in outline, divided into seven to eleven shallow lobes, with a margin of small teeth. It had a long leaf stalk. If the plant grew “everywhere,” why hadn’t I ever noticed it?
A wild food foraging friend of mine called me one day in the mid- 1970s. He and I had both been relatively new botany students, and we would share our new findings with one another. He said that he’d located a field of mallow, and that he was willing to take me there. We quickly bicycled to the east side of Pasadena to a vacant lot. This was after the winter rains, and the lot was entirely covered in green “mounds,” rising up to perhaps three feet.
“That’s all mallow,” he told me excitedly. No wonder I wasn’t noticing mallow. I was looking for a single plant, not a mass of green where all the plants are growing thickly together. I got off my bike and examined a leaf. Yes, each leaf was just as I’d memorized it: roundish, shallow lobes, a margin of small teeth, dark green. I looked for and noted the small red spot on the upper surface of the leaf where it meets the stem. As I studied the leaf, I realized no amount of book learning could ever substitute for direct field experience. Though all the pictures – line drawings and photos – I’d studied of mallow were accurate, I still did not know mallow until this moment of actually seeing it in its natural state.
I then instinctively tasted a bit of the leaf. It was a bit tough, not strongly flavored one way or the other. You could call it bland. As I chewed, I detected the slight slimy quality that has led to its long-time use in Mexico for coughs and sore throats. The tea has also been used in Mexico as a wash for diaper rash.
Interestingly, because the plant is often growing in the poorest hardpan soil, Southwestern potters sometimes look for mallow as an indicator of where they might find suitable clay.
Mallow leaves are edible raw in salads and they impart a slightly mucilaginous texture. The leaves are commonly cooked and eaten like spinach; they can also be added to soup. I have tried using the mallow leaves as a substitute for grape leaves in the rice dish known as “grape leaf” (or dolma) in Mediterranean foods. If you prepare it as you’d have prepared a regular grape leaf, it makes a good substitute.
The leaves can be dried and infused into tea, and although bland, are a good source of vitamins and minerals. In the Mexican herb shops you can find dried mallow leaves (called “Malva”) which is infused for a beverage used to treat coughs and sore throats. Overall, the mallow leaf resembles the leaf of the nasturtium, a common garden plant which also grows wild along the Pacific coast. They both have round leaves with long stems. However, nasturtium is light green, with an entirely round leaf, devoid of teeth, with a stalk attached on the underside of the leaf. Mallow, by contrast, has a cleft where the leaf is attached, and it’s a much darker green color.
According to the USDA, 100 grams (1⁄2 cup) of the mallow leaf contains 249 milligrams of calcium, 69 milligrams of phosphorus, 2,190 I.U. of Vitamin A, and 35 milligrams of of Vitamin C. An analysis of the same volume of mallow leaf by Duke and Atchley showed 90 milligrams of calcium, 42 milligrams of phosphorus, 410 milligrams of potassium, and 24 milligrams of Vitamin C. This second analysis also revealed 3,315 micrograms of beta carotene.
“MALLOW IS COMMON THROUGHOUT MOST OF NORTH AMERICA AND EUROPE. THOUGH YOU FIND IT MOST OFTEN IN THE DISTURBED SOILS AROUND FARMS, AND BACKYARDS, AND URBAN VACANT LOTS, IT CAN ALSO BE FOUND IN SOME WILDERNESS AREAS WHERE THE SEEDS HAVE SPREAD.
As I was examining my first mallow plant, it was late enough in the season to see some flowers and fruits. The flowers are arranged in clusters along the branches. There are bracts at the base of each of these rose-colored flowers, and each petal is notched at its apex. The floral parts are five sepals, five petals about 1⁄8-inch long, numerous stamens, and one pistil. It’s a pretty little flower.
Circular flat fruits develop from the flowers. These 1⁄4-inch green fruits split, when ripe, into up to a dozen nutlets, resembling some packaged cheese; thus its common name “cheeseweed.”
I picked a few of these fruits and chewed them. They also have a bland flavor, perhaps a bit nutty. The mature fruits can be gathered, dried, and then the seeds separated from the chaff and other debris by winnowing it through a soft breeze. Then wash the seeds, dry them, and grind them for flour. An even easier way to use the mature seeds is to collect and winnow, and then simmer in water until they swell up. When cooked and soft, they can be seasoned (with butter, soy sauce, etc.) and then eaten like rice.
Mallow is common throughout most of North America and Europe. Though you find it most often in the disturbed soils around farms, and backyards, and urban vacant lots, it can also be found in some wilderness areas where the seeds have spread. It is worth getting to know because mallow can provide a minor addition to your meals or your medicine chest.
Mallow is an annual which comes up in late winter or spring after the rains, produces flowers and then its fruits, and by late summer it dies. However, when I pick the leaves and fruits of this plant, I never uproot it. I simply pick off the leaves or fruits that I intend to eat, and let the plant to continue to grow. I have observed that when I pick mallow leaves and fruits in this manner, they continue to live a month to two longer than the unpicked plants.
Perhaps most interesting is its relation to the Marsh Mallow (Althea officinalis), the root of which was boiled to yield a slimy, juice. This was whipped into a froth and made into a medicine for sore throats, bronchial troubles, and coughs. Today, “marshmallows” have no marsh mallow root extract, but are made of eggs, sugar, etc., and sold as candy. Common mallow root (Malva parviflora) will not yield a thick and slimy juice when boiled, but the green fruits (and the roots) can be boiled and the water beaten for an inferior substitute.
Originally from Europe, common mallow can now be found widely throughout North America, especially in backyards, gardens, vacant lots and cultivated fields.
Editors Note:A version of this article first appeared in the May 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.
You're signed up for the American Outdoor Guide Boundless newsletter.
We can't wait to send you the latest tips, trends and info. Want more right now?