The towpath beside the River Lee is a study in mauve with sprays of Common Mallow (Malva sylvestris) sprawling along the verge and out over the water. Often reduced to stunted tufts in managed verges, wilder areas that have been spared the mower allow this jaunty perennial to spread luxuriantly, its stems trailing and reaching up to a metre.
In our wildflower meadow (if a 4m x 1m patch in the lawn merits such a name, which for idealism’s sake we think it does) Common Mallow’s open, five-petalled flowers colour in the gaps between Common Knapweed (Centaurea nigra), Ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) and Field Scabious (Knautia arvensis). It was the first flower my daughter learnt to identify and amongst the first I attempted to paint in watercolours, but our affection for this wildflower is just the latest chapter in its long history as a familiar plant growing outside the backdoor or down the lane.
As members of the Malvacaea family, Mallows are related to Hollyhocks (Alcea), Hibiscus and Limes (Tilia). Like Small-leaved Lime (Tilia cordata) and Large-leaved Lime (Tilia platyphyllos), Common Mallow has edible leaves and flowers, but the nutlets or fruits (known colloquially as ‘cheeses’) were the part of the plant most prized by children as a wayside snack.
I like to rewind a couple of centuries and imagine the children in my family munching on the nutty cheeses, a tradition recounted by poet John Clare who shared a cottage in rural Helpston in Northamptonshire with my shepherding ancestors back in the 1820s. In The Shepherd’s Calendar (1827), Clare describes a thresher musing on his childhood:
The sitting down, when school was oer
Upon the threshold by his door
Picking from mallows sport to please
Each crumpld seed he calld a cheese.
I can’t help wondering if, one summer morning in the late 1820s, my young great-great-great grandfather Henry might have picked a fistful of mallow nutlets to give him something to nibble on as he trotted beside his father on their way to tend the sheep in the Helpston fields. While Henry might have been thinking about his handful of cheeses, children in other counties knew them as ‘rags and tatters’, ‘old man’s bread and cheese’ or ‘Billy buttons’.
Mallows were also important for their medicinal properties with both Dwarf Mallow (Malva neglecta) and Common Mallow collected by the local herbalist in John Clare’s poem ‘The Village Doctress’ to add to her potions. They had a wide range of uses including as a laxative and purgative, and as poultices for bruises, inflammation and insect bites due to the soothing powers of the mucilage in the leaves.
Other native mallows in the UK include Musk-mallow (Malva moschata) with its delicate pinkish or occasionally white flowers in July and August, and slightly later from August to September, Marsh-mallow (Althaea officinalis), soft white with the merest whisper of rose-blush. Marsh-mallow was most valued for the demulcent properties of its leaves and roots – the latter was the original source of the glutinous substance in marshmallows, a sweet treat now commonly (and somewhat less romantically) concocted from sugar, water and gelatin.
Common Mallow’s nectar-rich flowers are a mauve magnet for pollinating insects. In 1999, a study at Cambridge University Botanic Garden revealed that Honeybees (Apis mellifera)and Red-tailed Bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius) were the most frequent visitors to both Musk-mallow and Common Mallow. Hoverflies, solitary bees and Small White (Pieris rapae) and Large White (Pieris brassicae) butterflies are also attracted to the blooms.
Caterpillars of the imaginatively-named Mallow Moth (Larentia clavaria) feed on Common Mallow, although they will forsake their main larval foodplant to feed on Hollyhocks in the garden too. If feeding caterpillars are disturbed, they drop to the ground and curl up, disguising themselves as mallow seeds. Least Yellow Underwing (Noctua interjecta) larvae eat Common Mallow leaves too, while Hollyhock Seed Moth (Pexicopia malvella) caterpillars seek out the seeds of Marsh-mallow as well as feeding on Hollyhocks.
Common Mallow thrives in most soils and is an ideal addition to a wildflower meadow (however small) and any sunny wildlife garden. Marsh-mallow is also easy to grow and its tall (1.2m) flower spikes have an elegant charm at the back of an informal or wildlife border. At the more modest height of 60-90cm, Musk-mallow suits sunny spots in wildflower meadows or the middle of cottage borders. It is a fairly short-lived perennial, but will self-seed.
Both common mallow and common lime have edible parts, but should be eaten with caution as nitrates in the soil (for mallow) and old flowers (for lime) can cause problems. Mallow should be avoided by people with gallstones. See the Plants for a Future database for further information.
To buy mallow plants and seeds, try Bee Happy Plants, Chiltern Seeds, Beth Chatto’s Plants and Gardens, Scotia Seeds, Cumbria Wildflowers, Norfolk Herbs, PlantWild and other growers on the Peat Free Nurseries List.
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Nic Wilson and Dogwooddays do not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally. Always ensure it is legal to forage and where identification is concerned, if in doubt, leave it out.