Who doesn’t like marshmallows? Floating in your cocoa, shaped into a peep, or toasted over a campfire and smashed into a s’more, we all love the squidgy sweetness. I have always wondered where the name came from. What’s a mallow, and what is it doing in a marsh?
Turns out, Malvaceae is yet another family of plants, and one that most gardeners will recognize.
There are approximately 4200 species, including hollyhocks, cacao (chocolate), okra, hibiscus, Rose of Sharon, common mallow, and cotton. So are baobob and balsa trees, kola nuts (the original flavor of cola soft drinks), and durian (the tropical fruit that “taste like heaven but smells like hell”).
Take a look at these flowers and it’s easy to see what these plants have in common. There are five petals arranged like a skirt around a column of stamens, with the pistil in the middle. Some flowers also have five sepals.
There’s another test you can do. Crush any part of the plant between your fingers. Feel the slime? Okra is famous for its mucilaginous texture, but it’s not unique—all species in the family are so cursed. (Can you tell I’m not a fan?) That’s because they contain the natural gums mucilage, pectin, and asparagin.
Common Mallow (Malva neglecta) is a widespread weed originally imported from Europe, and one I’m constantly pulling from my garden. It’s supposedly an annual, although some resprout for a second year if the root crown survives winter. The flowers are recognizably mallows, typically white or very pale pink with darker pink stripes. They’re followed by fruits resembling tiny wheels of cheese, hence its other common name, cheese weed. Some people consider the plant edible, adding the leaves to recipes, or using the gummy sap to thicken recipes. Not surprisingly, the result is rather slimy (think of a gumbo full of okra). I think I’ll pass.
Other family members are much more desirable. While I don’t like okra, I do love chocolate. Theobroma cacao is one member of the Malvaceae I’d hate to live without. Cotton is another. And then there are all the gorgeous flowers, from hollyhocks to hibiscus.
One of my favorite wildflowers is a mallow. You can find it listed as Globemallow, but I prefer the more colorful Cowboy’s Delight. One species (there are several in the genus) carpets Colorado’s high plains in the spring. Breeders are working to bring another species into cultivation, and you’ll soon be able to grow this xeric native in your own garden.
So what does all this have to do with marshmallows? The marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis) is a perennial plant in the family mallow. It’s native to the eastern hemisphere—Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa—but is occasionally grown elsewhere for its ornamental flowers. It’s also used as an herbal remedy for a variety of ailments. As you’d expect, the marsh mallow grows in wet soil. Candy marshmallows were originally made by whipping the slimy juices of this plant into a thick, white foamy concoction similar to whipped cream, and then adding sugar. Now gelatin is used instead of mallow gum, but the name persists.