Marshmallows, those fluffy pillows of sugar and gelatin that we char to a crisp around campfires or use to adorn Thanksgiving yam casseroles, were originally made by whipping a decoction (exatraction by boiling) of mallow roots. Any of the mallows were able to be used in the preparation of marshmallows, however, the mallow commonly called “marsh mallow” (Althaea officinalis) whips up the best confection. The original marshmallows were not like today’s commercial variety.
The entire common mallow plant (Malva neglecta), like all the other mallows, is edible. The young green leaves make a nice addition to salads or can be boiled as a potherb. When boiled mallow has a slippery, sticky mucilaginous quality (like okra) and is used as a culinary thickening agent. The seeds are high in protein and can be eaten. I have nibbled common mallow leaves, but usually have to many other delicious wild greens in the spring to bother with mallow. I do plan to try making mallow marshmallows some day.
Medicinally, mallow, even today, is used by herbalists as a demulcent (internal protective coating and soothing) for inflammation and irritation of the digestive, urinary and respiratory organs. As an emollient (external soothing and softening) mallow softens and heals sores, ulcers or diseased areas of the skin.
Cream, yellow and green natural dyes can be obtained using mallow plant parts.
An annual, or less commonly a biennial, common mallow is a European native. Originally introduced as an ornamental, common mallow has spread and established itself throughout most of North America. An invasive species (thus often classified as a noxious weed), common mallow can be found in gardens, lawns, cultivated fields and disturbed or waste areas.
Also commonly called buttonweed, common mallow generally has a low-spreading stem and semi-erect branches. The alternate leaves have a long petiole (stalk) and are rounded with a heart-shaped base. Two stipules are at the base of each stalk. The leaf itself has five to seven slight lobes. The five whitish petals have lavender stripes and are notched at the top. The fruit, green at first and maturing to a brownish color, is a capsule that resembles a miniature, whole, round cheese – thus another common name, cheeseweed.
The genus name derives from the Greek word “malake” meaning “to soften” since mallows soften skin.
These common mallow plants were photographed on Day Road near McArthur CA (Shasta County). We have them in our barnyard (Modoc County CA) but I was waiting for Leonard to complete a veterinary call and started snapping pictures.