I was out for the day yesterday, the first time I’d had to contend all day with the intense heat we’ve been having the past week. At a friend’s place for afternoon tea I went searching in his yard for something for a herbal brew and found some mallow. It wasn’t in flower yet, so I picked a handful of leaves, put them in a mug and covered with boiling water. I let this sit until it was warm (giving it time to brew), and then we drank it. It was mildly and pleasantly green tasting, and refreshing.
Mallow is perfect for hot dry climates and it’s a boon that it grows here. It’s rich in mucilage, which means it has complex sugars (carbohydrates) that form a gel like substance. The root of mallow’s cousin marshmallow was originally used to make the sweet marshmallow because of this mucilage. Mucilage in plants is thought to help the plant conserve water, and it’s also one of the properties used in herbal medicine – to help the body maintain moisture and not dry out.
There are a handful of different mallows growing in NZ. The one I found is probably the dwarf mallow, Malva neglecta, a low growing, almost prostrate mallow (or possibly it’s a small version of M sylvestris). On my travels later in the day I found the most fantastic stand of them flowering along the road.
Malva species are part of the Malvaceae family, a large group of plants that includes our native Houhere (Hoheria spp) which is also mucilaginous.
The common name mallow is used for Malva spp but also some others eg Lavatera arborea (tree mallow).
Mallows are fairly easy to ID. The flowers are distinctive, with five striped petals and usually purple or pink. The leaves are slightly furry, have a mild taste and will be a bit slimy when chewed. Here’s a few ID resources:
Mallows are edible and medicinal. The Malva mallow leaves and flowers can be eaten raw in salads, or made into tea or infusion. The leaves can also be cooked in soups and stews. I ate the leaves from our tea (a good way to experience the mucilaginous aspect of this plant). The green ripe seed pods are also edible and a traditional British wildfood treat known as ‘cheeses’.
When making tea or infusion there are several options. Mucilage extracts well into cold water, so a cold infusion is good if you have lots of plant and time. You can use leaves or flowers or both. Put a good handful of plant in a jar and cover with cold water. Steep 4 – 8 hours or overnight. Infusions high in mucilage will go off quickly so drink within a day or store somewhere cool.
As mentioned with the tea, mallow can also be a quick drink from fresh plant, made with hot water. The longer you leave it to brew the stronger the tea, bearing in mind this is a subtle plant – you won’t get much from just a few minutes. And it’s better on a hot day when it’s cooled a bit.
You can also make a hot infusion – use more plant and leave longer. If you have plenty of mallow, it’s nice to experiment and see how the different preparations taste and work in your body.
Mallows grow easily in the garden in a variety of climates – Malva sylvestris in particular is a great garden plant, putting out leaves and flowers over a long season for continual picking. Cut back in the autumn or winter for more lush growth the following year.