Malva sylvestris (Common mallow)
Common mallow (Malva sylvestris) is one of a total of 30 plant species of the mallow genus (Malva) within the mallow family (Malvaceae). The well-known culinary and medicinal plant is originally native to southern Europe and the Mediterranean region – but its distribution now extends as far as Central Asia and the Himalayas. The short-lived perennial grows preferentially along roadsides and meadows, on embankments and on wasteland. In the mountains, one finds them up to an altitude of approximately 1,500 metres.
Characteristic of the Malva sylvestris are its disc-shaped fruits, which remind one of small cheese loaves. This fact and the fact that mucilaginous cereal porridge was cooked from mallow leaves and meal, which was called “cardboard”, gave the plant the popular name “cheese poplar”. Other alternative names are cheese herb, cat cheese and field mallow. TMalva sylvestris is rich in mucilaginous substances and has therefore been used since ancient times as a mucolytic remedy for coughs and sore throats. Charlemagne (747-814) ordered around 800 in his country estate decree “Capitulare de villis et curtis imperialibus” to cultivate the wild mallow in the gardens of the imperial estates. In the Middle Ages Malva sylvestris was even regarded as a panacea: herbalists used the plant for stomach upsets, digestive problems, fever and eye ulcers. Today, the undemanding summer flower, of which there are numerous cultivars in beautiful colours, is an indispensable part of the home garden and natural flower beds.
Appearance and growth
Malva sylvestris is a short-lived perennial that lignifies at the bottom and is usually cultivated as an annual summer flower. Depending on its location, the plant reaches heights between 30 and 120 centimeters. The varieties also differ greatly in their growth habit: there are both low and wide-growing as well as high and bushy cheese poplars. From a spindle-shaped and deep reaching tap root, upright, branched and rough-haired stems grow, which carry long stemmed and roundish leaves. 5 to 7 lobed leaves are about ten centimeters wide, hairy on both sides and notched or serrated at the edge. From the leaf axils develop the flower stems covered with a soft-haired felt, at the ends of which the bluish-violet or pink flowers appear. The flowering period lasts from May to about September. The flower, wrapped in a double calyx, consists of five petals which are two centimeters long, inverted ovoid, deeply serrated at the tip and interspersed with dark veins. The edible flowers don’t smell. After pollination, which is often carried out by bumble bees, a disc-shaped split fruit with a length of one centimeter and a central depression develops.
Location and soil
Malva sylvestris thrives best in a sunny location. The relatively undemanding plant prefers almost any soil as long as the soil is permeable. It is also advantageous if the soil is loose and rich in nutrients and nitrogen.
Sowing and planting
At the end of April/beginning of May you can sow the common mallow directly into the open field. In order to accelerate the flowering, a pre-culture in the house on the windowsill is also possible from March onwards. The germination period of the cheese poplar is about two weeks. In addition, you can also simply cultivate common mallows, which are available as top plants. The cheese poplar is most beautiful in groups. Leave about 40 centimeters of space between the perennials so that each plant can branch well and grow enough flowers. Tip: Give the plants some compost in the planting hole to help them grow.
The cheese poplar needs regular watering and must not dry out. But be careful: it is essential to avoid waterlogging! As young plants flower the most, it is advisable to reproduce the wild mallow every year. In sunny and permeable locations, the wild beauty often also comes out on its own.
Malva sylvestris, which enjoys blooming, should not be missing in any house garden. The summer flower, which is rich in form and easy to care for, is most beautiful in beds or group plantings that are laid out close to nature. In summer the common mallow is also a pretty companion in wild flower bouquets.
The young leaves of Malva sylvestris are used in the kitchen and are best picked between June and the end of August. They can be added to salad or stewed like spinach. The flowers, which are collected without stems during the flowering period, are an edible garnish for cheese platters, desserts and cocktails.
Coomon mallow: other uses
Malva sylvestris is regarded as the mucous membrane remedy par excellence. It contains mucilages, essential oils, tannins, flavonoids and tannins and therefore helps in a natural way against coughs and inflammations of the mucous membranes. Malva tea can also relieve stomach and intestinal problems. For inflamed eyes and eczema, an external infusion of mallow flowers and leaves can be applied. Cheese poplar also has an external effect on insect bites and minor skin injuries: Rub a few mallow flowers between your fingers and place them on the affected skin area.
This is how you make mallow tea: Take about one to two heaped teaspoons of dried mallow flowers or a mixture of flowers and leaves and pour them with a quarter litre of lukewarm or cold – but not hot! – Open the water. Allow the mixture to steep for five to ten hours, stirring occasionally. The brew is then poured off. If you have neck problems or cough, you can sweeten the mallow tea with honey and drink two to three cups a day. In order to relieve inflammations in the throat or mouth, you can also gargle with the liquid. Caution – danger of confusion: Mallow teas on the market often contain Roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa) flowers instead of Malva sylvestris.
Important species and varieties
For medicinal purposes, the Mauritanian mallow (Malva sylvestris subsp. mauritiana) is recommended in addition to the species. It is very common on the Iberian Peninsula and in Algeria and is characterised by large dark purple and deeply veined flowers. Its leaves are shiny green. The variety ‘Zebrina’ shows light flowers with red markings for months. Blue Fountain’ – the name betrays it – blooms in violet blue. Also violet flowers with dark veined petals form ‘Bibor Fehlo’, while ‘Mystic Merlin’ is an appealing mixture with all kinds of different flower colours.
Diseases and pests
Aphids may appear on the leaves of the cheese poplar. Like other species of mallow, it is also susceptible to mallow rust (Puccinia malvacearum). Rust coloured dots on the undersides of the leaves indicate an infestation. As soon as you notice the first signs, you should remove the affected leaves and dispose of them with your household waste.