Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, what a handsome plant common mallow is! There are several specimens growing in an area of the playing fields next to Coldfall Wood that was turned over to improve drainage last year. With their twisted buds and prominent stamen it is easy to see their relationship to their more enthusiastic cousins, the hollyhocks.
The plant has several English vernacular names that refer to cheese – ‘Cheesecake’ is one, and ‘Pick Cheese’ is another. But why? Apparently because the fruit is a ‘doughnut-shaped ring of nutlets’ according to my Harrap’s ‘Wild Flowers’, and because these seeds resemble a whole cheese. Children have been known to eat the seeds, which apparently have a bland, mealy taste.
Common mallow is an ancient introduction to the UK, having a native range that includes the whole of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, and spreads as far east as Mongolia. The pollen from the plant has been found in a Roman excavation in Bearsden, close to Glasgow, and it is known that the leaves, flowers and seeds were eaten by the Romans, both as food as a kind of preventative medicine – Pliny said that a daily dose would make you immune to all diseases (many thanks, yet again, to Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica for this information). Mabey speculates that, as the pollen is only found at the Roman levels of the excavation, the plant may well have been cultivated by the legion.
Both the leaves and roots of common mallow contain a lot of gelatinous mucilage, which has been used in ointments for burns and wounds, and as a generally soothing tonic for inflammation and irritation. The leaves also contain a lot of iron and vitamins.
You might wonder if there was an association between the Mallow family and Marshmallows, and indeed there is: the now nationally scarce Marsh Mallow (Althea officinalis) was probably the source of the original sweet, which was made from its roots. Nowadays, marshmallows are typically made with gelatin, sugar and water, coated in corn starch.
On the Permaculture website , there are many references to uses of common mallow as food. In both Hebrew and Arabic, the local name of the plant translates as ‘bread’, and when Jerusalem was under siege in 1948 it was an important famine crop. Some Israelis still prepare Ktzitziot Khubeza, a patty made of mallow leaves, breadcrumbs, eggs and spices on Independence Day (6th May), or may incorporate the plant into a soup. There is an interesting article about the history of the mallow in Israeli cuisine here.
You can also use the seeds from common mallow as a partial replacement for egg white in meringues. Again, from the Permaculture website:
‘The seed pods can be substituted for most of the egg white if wanting to make mallow meringues. Simply boil up the peeled seed pods using 3 parts water 1 part seed pods, and reduce the liquid by half. For every half cup of liquid add one egg white, ¼ tsp of cream of tartar, some vanilla and castor sugar, then whip it up until foamy and stiff, just like meringues.’
Incidentally, for those of us who would like to reduce our reliance on animal products, I was recently reading that meringue can be made from the water that chickpeas are canned in (called aquafaba). Who would have dreamed of such a thing? I haven’t tried any recipes yet, but I am intrigued. After all, what could be cheaper than something that would normally be thrown away? For anyone else who is interested, here is a link to all kinds of pavlovas, pies and macarons that can apparently be knocked up for almost nothing. Wonders will never cease, indeed.
Anyhow, back to common mallow.
Common mallow was also said to be one of the plants traditionally incorporated into May Day garlands. This puzzles me a little, as these days the plant’s flowering season doesn’t now really kick off until June. Did it bloom earlier in previous centuries, or was it a rare component that was appreciated all the more for its scarcity? Who knows. It certainly has a rather exotic look, with its purple striped flowers.
And finally, in ‘Flora Domestica, Or, The Portable Flower Garden’, by Elizabeth Kent and Leigh Hunt (written in 1831), there is this on the subject of the common mallow:
‘The common Mallow of this country must be familiar even to London readers; it is ‘an amiable plant, generally to be found in spots neglected by mankind’.
By which, gentle reader, we can deduce both that the average Londoner was considered to be a bit of a klutz with regard to noticing the natural world even then, and also that the plant was found in urban areas, and may have been considered something of a ‘weed’. Some things change, and some things stay very much the same.
Photo One – By Ferran Turmo Gort https://www.flickr.com/photos/fturmog/1402925498
All other photos free to use and share for non-commercial purposes, but please credit Vivienne Palmer and link to the blog. Thank you!