Mallow is a wild edible highly esteemed for its various food uses, and chances are, it’s already growing in your backyard. This hollyhock relative is widespread across the United States and is a wonderful edible plant to become acquainted with.
While there are several mallow plants, this article specifically covers Malva neglecta, which is commonly eaten as a wild food. I’ll dive into the other common malva species you might come across, as well as how to identify M. neglecta and the plethora of ways you can incorporate it into your meals.
Hopefully, by the end of this article, you’ll come to love this wild edible and start harvesting it for food rather than trying to find ways to remove it. But, if you must remove it, you might as well bring it into the kitchen and add it to your next meal!
What Is Mallow?
Mallow is a general name for several species in the Malva genus, including common mallow (Malva neglecta), high mallow (Malva sylvestris), and little mallow (M. parviflora).
Confusingly, all these mallow species share the common names: common mallow and cheeseweed. M. neglecta and M. parviflora are strikingly similar with only slight differences, while Malva sylvestris is easily distinguished once it forms its erect flowering stalk and purple blooms. Luckily, all three plants are edible.
Of the three, common mallow (M. neglecta) is the most widespread; as such, it will be the focus of this article. Continuing from here, every time I write ‘common mallow’ or simply ‘mallow,’ I am referring to M. neglecta.
Common mallow, also known as dwarf mallow, is a weedy annual to short-lived perennial native to Eurasia and northern Africa. It has now naturalized throughout much of North America, as well as parts of South America and eastern Asia.
As a member of the Malvaceae, or Malva family, common mallow is related to some well-known and beloved plants, including hollyhock, okra, cotton, hibiscus, and marshmallow.
The genus and family name, Malva, is a Greek word that means soft and soothing, generally in reference to the skin. This not only refers to the soft leaves of many Malvaceae family members but also to the demulcent property common in the Malva family.
This demulcent or mucilaginous compound is a key factor in mallow’s culinary uses, which I’ll describe in more detail below.
How To Identify
Thriving in disturbed areas, mallow stays close to human inhabitants and can often be found growing in gardens, backyards, fields, barnyards, and roadsides.
It is also a common weed to find growing near sidewalks or between cement cracks. It prefers full sun to part shade and can grow in various soil conditions, including compact and rocky, sandy and loamy, and even rich and fertile.
Mallow is a sprawling plant with basal leaves, though it’s rarely seen with only its basal leaves. At a young age, it will send out its lengthy stems, which are light green to purplish, thick, solid, roundish to slightly angled, and finely pubescent (hairy). Sometimes, the stems branch if the plant is older and growing in nutrient-rich soil.
The alternate stem leaves and basal leaves are identical: they have a round, somewhat lobed, ruffled shape with a cutout at the base. The blade, or leaf surface, is sparsely hairy on both sides, and the margin (leaf edge) has blunt teeth.
There are noticeable palmate veins; all major veins on the leaf blade run straight to the lobe tips. They are depressed on top and protruding below. Mallow leaves have long petioles (leaf stems), about one and a half to four times the blade length (Thayer, 385).
Mallow flowers bloom from April to October and resemble miniature hollyhock flowers. They grow in the leaf axils along the stem and have five white to pale pink petals with light purplish veins.
Once the flowers are pollinated and fertilized, the fruits emerge, which are light green, flattened, and resemble a wheel. Five calyx lobes wrap around the fruit, which turns from green to brown as it matures and the hard seeds develop.
Immature or green mallow fruits also look like miniature cheese rounds, which is how mallow gained one of its common names, cheeseweed, and the immature fruits are known as mallow cheeses. I prefer to call them mallow peas, as they are certainly closer to tasting like peas and don’t taste anything like cheese.
Edibility & Preparation
Mallow leaves, flowers, and immature fruits are edible and can be eaten raw or cooked. The leaves can be added raw to salads or smoothies or steamed alongside other dark leafy greens such as spinach or kale. They can be used in place of any other dark leafy green.
Mallow leaves have a nice, mellow flavor. They are neither bitter nor pungent, so they are a great wild edible to eat if you’re sensitive to bitterness or “green” tasting plants.
When chewing a mallow leaf, you’ll notice it has almost a slimy texture. This is due to the mucilaginous compounds found in the mallow plant, which is why it is known as a demulcent.
These compounds cause liquids to thicken, and you’ll notice that sensation in your mouth. The added benefit to this is that mallow leaves and peas will cause soups or sauces to thicken, so they can be used as a thickening agent.
The flowers have a subtle floral taste and are also slightly mucilaginous. They can be added to salads or desserts as a lovely garnish.
The peas are my favorite part of the mallow plant to eat. They are enjoyable raw with a pleasant mild flavor. They can also be sauteed or steamed along with other vegetables. The same mucilaginous texture and thickening agent is produced when eating or cooking mallow peas, maybe even more so than the leaves. Mallow peas can even be used as an okra substitute for making gumbo or something similar.
Harvesting mallow leaves, peas, and flowers, while simple, is rather tedious. It takes a while to gain a substantial harvest, so you’ll want to begin the task with patience and time to spare.
It’s easier to cut the leaves with garden pruners or scissors than picking them with your hands. Wild food forager John Kallas recommends leaving just a little bit of the leaf stem attached, especially for use in salads.
This is because the leaves are quite flat, so leaving a little bit of stem helps create more texture and “air” in the salad bowl. That said, you want to be careful not to have too much of the stem attached as it can be rather fibrous.
If you’re eating the leaves raw, it’s better to collect younger leaves, as the older leaves can have a thicker texture. The large older leaves are good for steaming or sauteeing. Only harvest healthy-looking leaves and avoid leaves with spotted plant rust or hollyhock rust, which mallow plants are prone to.
The leaves wilt quickly, so you’ll want to enjoy them fresh or place them in cold water for about 15 minutes and then transfer them to a sealed container for later use.
Harvest mallow peas from July through September. Hand-pick the little green fruits until you have the amount you desire. You’ll want to separate the pea from the calyx before you eat them for a more desirable experience.
As with the leaves, avoid fruits affected by the fungal pathogen spotted plant rust.
Only harvest mallow plants growing in clean environments. Do not harvest mallow growing near roadways, railroad tracks, flood plains, polluted areas, or places where herbicide has been sprayed.
Can You Make Marshmallows From Mallow Plant?
You’re correct in assuming there’s a connection between the tasty confectionaries, marshmallows, and the mallow plant (kind of).
Traditionally, marshmallows were made from the thick substance produced by the root of the plant marshmallow (Althea officinalis). Marshmallow is related to mallow and is recognized as a valuable herbal medicine.
Wild food explorers have tested the mucilaginous texture of other mallow species to see how they compare to marshmallow root. When it comes to the root, no other species (as far as I’m aware) compare to A. officinalis’ root. However, they did find that the immature fruits of various mallow plants were able to produce a substance thick enough to make what is known as “mallow whites,” which can be used to make marshmallows.
Wild food enthusiast and experimenter John Kallas made mallow whites from common mallow (M. neglecta), a.k.a the topic of this article, and then used those mallow whites to make marshmallows.
So, can you make marshmallows from the mallow plant? Yes, but it isn’t easy and requires many steps. If you want to learn how, I recommend picking up the book Edible Wild Plants by John Kallas, where he provides his detailed recipe for making mallow marshmallows.
The Wonderful Edible You Should Leave in Your Garden
If your yard or garden has mallow growing in it, and you’re thinking you should remove it because it’s “just a weed,” I hope this article gives you another perspective on the uses of this plant.
I say, leave it! It isn’t super invasive, so it’s not going to “take over.” The way I see it is that it’s an abundant wild food available for you right in your backyard. You didn’t have to “work” for it or buy it, and I think that’s pretty incredible.
Plus, wild greens are undoubtedly more nutritious than cultivated greens. While the research is lacking when it comes to mallow’s nutritional profile, I’m confident it is high in vitamins and minerals, as all wild greens are.
Lastly, removing mallow isn’t easy. Established plants have a long and thick taproot, and mallow seeds can stay viable in the soil for many years. So, trying to remove it can be a waste of time and effort.
All that to say, I understand if you wish to remove it because it’s growing in a garden bed you want to plant in.
So, if you must remove it, you might as well put it to good use and eat the leaves, flowers, and fruit (if present) before you discard it.
As an herbalist, my goal is to connect people with the healing powers of nature. Through my writings and herbal concoctions, I aim to guide others toward a healthier lifestyle using time-honored methods. With over four years of experience studying herbalism and organic gardening, I offer my knowledge to inspire others to explore the natural world, cultivate their own gardens, and rediscover their bond with the earth.