Dear Readers, what a delicate and pretty plant this is! I’ve seen it twice in the past few weeks, once on Hampstead Heath and at the weekend in the woodland grave area of St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, where I suspect it’s been planted as part of a wildflower mix. You can distinguish it from Common Mallow (Malva sylvestris) by its pale pink petals and very fine, feathery leaves. Common mallow is much darker in colour (it can often look almost purple) with dark-coloured veins.
Musk mallow is so-called because it is perfumed, though you can smell it much more strongly in an enclosed space. The plant is native to Europe and south-west Asia, and is said to have been used by the Ancient Greeks to decorate the graves of their friends. The Anglo-Saxons also planted it on graves, and in Austria it still seems to be a favourite graveyard plant.
All parts of the plant are said to be edible, and in Egypt you can eat Melokhia, or Mallow Soup, made from the young leaves (see here for a recipe). I suspect, though, that the leaves of this species are rather too fine and delicate to eat in anything other than a salad, along with a sprinkling of the flowers. The seedheads of musk mallow turn into little round ‘cheeses’, which are added to many Russian dishes, including borscht.
Musk mallow is also known as St Simeon’s herb, and it has a long association with eye health – St Simeon is said to have cured his blindness by bathing his eyes in a solution made from the plant, and credited it with enabling him to recognise the baby Jesus as the Messiah. It’s said that if you dig up a mallow root on St Simeon’s Day (October 8th) before sunrise, you can use it as an amulet against eye disease, or make a tincture to cure blindness or cataracts.
In the Middle Ages it was also said to be a test for fertility and, conversely, for virginity. The woman in question peed on a mallow. If it dried up in three days, she was either infertile or no longer a virgin. If the plant survived the dousing, the maiden was either, well, a maiden or capable of bearing children (or presumably both). Being a woman in the Middle Ages was clearly fraught with peril.
Like all mallows, musk mallow is rather mucilaginous, and as such its medicinal uses include many ways to soothe. It’s an ingredient in many recipes for cough medicine, and was historically used to soften boils (indeed the word mallow comes from the Greek malakos, meaning ‘soft’). No wonder then that in Christian symbolism the plant came to represent forgiveness, the softening of the heart towards a hardened soul. Galen also considered it to be anaphrodisiac, a plant that cooled the passions.
In the Victorian Language of Flowers, musk mallow is said to represent being consumed by love, persuasion and weakness, so be careful if you pop it into a bouquet for your loved one.
And finally, a poem. I love this, of course I do. Wherever I look, people seem to be losing their loved ones, one way or another. This is for you, brothers and sisters.
by Ann Gray
When I let the chickens out, I hurl mixed corn
in a golden arc across the frosted ground.
I know it’s junk, they shouldn’t have it, they don’t
need it, but everyone deserves joy somewhere.
I’ve been looking for something I once had and miss
and want again. I meet him in the beach café.
He has soup. I sip tea. He has over-wintered
vegetables on his allotment. I see it on his hands.
I imagine all that soil on my body. Sometimes
you know what’s bad for you, might be good.
I phone my mother every morning to start her day
– the way she knows it’s me, the way she says,
hello dear, before I’m speaking. She needs someone
to complain to. A mother is a precious thing. I know that
now I’m sure to lose her. She’s losing nouns and I have
to rummage in my brain to help her find them. I tell her
yesterday I thought I’d lost a dog and lost my voice calling.
I found her back at home, shaking, not sure if coming home
was good or bad, or neither, or both. There’s no reward
for coming home if no-one’s there, no one you love, no-one
to put out a hand, or smile to see you. My mother knows
and tries to hold me in her voice. Mothers do what they can.
Sometimes they don’t get much to work with. She knows
I’ll chase that golden arc, hoping for the joy in it.
I hope so much, hope the wine, the food, will taste
as it’s supposed to, hope that friends will stay,
their elbows on the table, The Low Anthem singing
To Ohio across the garden, where all those flowers
I fell in love with will be just a promised on their packets:
night scented stock, musk mallow, lunaria, pale phlox.
In this falling dark, when hens shuffle on their perches,
I hold my breath, listen to the sound of my loud heart.