The common mallow plant is a nutritious, mild-flavored wild edible that has long been used for medicine and food. It’s one of thousands of species in the Malvaceae family of flowering plants, ranging from cotton and cacao to hibiscus and durian. Common mallow is a low-growing weed with a hairy stem, purplish flowers, and lobed, geranium-like leaves. Its round fruits resemble tiny wheels of cheese sectioned into wedges, giving the plant its nickname: cheeseweed.
As species of mallow spread across different regions across the world, they often became part of local cuisine. Molokhia is a garlicky green soup made with jute mallow that’s popular across Middle Eastern cuisines. In Turkish and Arabic cuisine, mallow is often sauteed with onions, ground meat, and a squeeze of lemon. In Moroccan cuisine, mallow is cooked with olive oil, spices, olives, and preserved lemons and served with bread as a dip. Though some species are cultivated, others, like common mallow, grow prolifically as weeds in wild and neglected areas, thus becoming an important food source during times of scarcity.
One variety of mallow, which thrives in saline areas near seashores, became a household name when confectioners began using a sap made from its roots to make a delicious sweet. Its name? You guessed it– the marshmallow. Modern marshmallows are made with gelatin rather than mallow sap, but the name stuck.
Mallow also has a long history of medical use around the world, used variously as an anti-inflammatory, diuretic, demulcent, emollient, laxative, and expectorant. Common mallow is high in antioxidants as well as nutrients like vitamins A and C, calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron and selenium. The plant secretes mucilage, a gel-like substance known for its anti-inflammatory effects, which is used in a wide range of treatments such as poultices and ointments to soothe cuts, burns, and inflamed areas, and medicines to treat internal irritations. Perhaps less common today, mallow was once used as an aphrodisiac. Roman author and naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote that a sprinkle of mallow would inspire lust to “an infinite degree.”
Flavor & Uses
All parts of the mallow plant are edible: the leaves, seeds, roots, fruit, and flowers.
The leaves, in particular young and medium age leaves, have a mild green flavor and can be eaten in a salad. The afore-mentioned mucilage lends a distinct texture that some only find palatable in limited amounts, as when tossed with other tender greens. The leaves can also be cooked, deep-fried, added as a potherb and thickening agent, or dried to make tea or supplements.
Common mallow’s disc-shaped seeds can be eaten sauteed or raw as a fresh, crisp snack. Mallow fruit has a slightly nutty flavor and makes a fine substitute for capers when pickled, while the flowers have an indistinct grassy flavor that makes them best for pickling or adding to salads. The roots are the primary storage for mucilage in the plant and can be boiled to create a thick liquid that, when whipped up until foamy and stiff, can turn into delicate mallow meringues.