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 mallow (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. The mallow (Malva 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 (mallow) 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.
The wild mallow grows as a wintering green, rarely annual, mostly biennial to perennial herbaceous plant, which reaches growth heights of 30 to 125 centimetres. With its spindle-shaped, fleshy, deep-reaching taproot it is firmly anchored in the ground. The inside white root is characterised by numerous root fibres. The stem, which is covered with numerous rough tufts of hair, usually grows erect, but specimens with a rising or falling stem also occur. The stem, which is rounded to angular in cross-section, can become woody near the ground in the outer area, but has a loose pith inside. Often the stem does not die completely to the root after flowering, but forms wintering leaf buds in the armpits of the lowest, already dead leaves, from which the plant sprouts again the following year. In vigorous specimens, the taproots can develop adventitious buds just below the ground. From some of them a new flowering stem shoots the following year. The parts of the plant above ground may be hairy.
The alternately arranged leaves on the stem are 2 to 4 centimetres long and 2 to 5 centimetres wide and consist of petiole and leaf blade. The 2 to 6 centimetre long leaf stalk has rough hairs and sits crosswise on the stem. The grass green leaf blade, soft-haired on both sides, is ivy-like, roundish to heart-shaped and five to seven-lobed. The shape of the leaves depends on their position on the axis of the shoot. The lower stem leaves, which are rather round, have seven lobes, the upper ones are pointed and sieve-lobed, the uppermost stem leaves are usually more deeply incised and divided into five lobes. The edge of the leaf shows a clear notch. The stipules are linearly elongated to lanceolate and pointed, with a length of about 5 mm and a width of about 1.5 mm. At the base of the petiole they sit crosswise on the stem.
Location and soil
Malva sylvestris (mallow) thrives best in a sunny location. This 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 mallow (Malva sylvestris) or cheese poplar is about two weeks. In addition, you can also simply cultivate common mallows, which are available as top plants. The mallow (Malva sylvestris) 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: Just an editorial comment, give the plants some compost in the planting hole to help them grow.
The flowering time is between May and September. The flowers usually stand in clusters of two to four (rarely up to ten) in the leaf axils, but can also stand individually. The hairy flower stems are 2 centimetres shorter than the leaf stems and are erect at flowering and fruiting time.
The hermaphroditic, five-numbered flowers are radially symmetrical with a diameter of 2.5 to 5 centimetres. The outer calyx consists of two to three unadulterated green bracts. The narrow bracts are ovoid to lanceolate with a length of 2 to 3 mm and a width of about 1.5 mm. The five 3 to 6 millimetre long sepals are fused together up to the middle in a bell-shaped manner and end in five broad, triangular, pointed calyx tips. The width of the calyx tips is 2 to 3 millimetres. Both the calyx and the outer calyx may have shaggy hairs. Usually the petals protrude three to four times beyond the calyx. The five nailed petals are about 1 centimetre wide, narrow, inverted egg-shaped and clearly edged. The petals, which are pinkish-purple in colour, have fine longitudinal nerves (line-juice marks) which are slightly darker in colour and give them their characteristic pattern. The violet coloration is based on water-soluble anthocyanins, which are found in the sap of the cell vacuole. The crown nail is ciliated. The wild mallow has numerous stamens, the long filaments of which have grown together to form a cylindrical stamen about 3 millimetres long and covered with star hairs. This is fused with the petals, completely surrounds the multi-column stylus and covers the upper ovary. Only the threadbare scars, which are attached lengthwise on the inside of the pencil branches, are released to the tip. The upwardly free dust filaments carry kidney-shaped, white dust bags. The dust bags are each equipped with only one counter. They open crosswise to release the pollen. The pollen grains are white, short-spined and spherical. Numerous carpels have grown together to form a roundish, somewhat depressed, upper ovary. Septum walls form at the adhesion points, so that, analogous to the number of carpels, numerous chamber-like fruit fans are formed.
The mallow (Malva sylvestris) 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 (mallow), 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 mallow (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.
Common mallow: other uses like mallow tea
Mallow (Malva sylvestris) is regarded as the mucous membrane remedy “par excellence2. 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. Mallow (Malva sylvestris) 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 colors.
Diseases and pests
Aphids may appear on the leaves of the mallow (Malva sylvestris). 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. There is no way to recover them.