At some level, the weeds will always win, so we’re using weeds to help control our weeds. We selectively support weeds with higher potential utility, hoping that these weeds can out-compete less desirable weeds. Edible weeds with a long history of beneficial use in their native range, as is the case for the common mallow, are weeds we do not find compelling reason to eradicate.
Traditional medicinal use:
Common mallow is not a native American medicinal but rather a traditional European medicinal and edible. This old world introduction is now widely distributed across North America. After it appeared on the continent, many indigenous North American tribes adopting using the plant, most frequently as a dermatological aid to help heal sores and swelling. Malva neglecta has a long history of traditional medicinal use in Europe. It was a ‘cure-all’ of Medieval herbal medicine used to treat conditions including but not limited to sore gums, sore throats, stomach irritation, problems during childbirth, constipation, general aches and pains, and coughs and skin problems.
Common mallow, an annual, rarely gets above 1′ in height and can develop as vine up to 3′ in length. It is frequently found in ecologically disturbed sites, such as along roads or in parking lots, as would be expected of a successful weed. The roundish leaves resemble geranium leaves. Five-petaled flowers can be whitish, pale blue, pale lavender, reddish purple, or pale pink with striations. Common mallow has a hairy stem, develops a large, tough taproot which gets woody as plant matures and blooms summer through fall.
Common mallow is a member of family Malvaceae, a plant family which also includes cotton, hibiscus, okra and even cacao. In many parts of the world, common mallow, rich in vitamins and minerals, is found in markets along with other vegetables. All parts of the plant are edible. Leaves and seed pods are sometimes consumed raw individually or added to salad. The fruit of the common mallow has been shown to contain 21% protein and 15.2% fat and natural antioxidants (Wikipedia). There appears to be some interest regarding whether the sap can be used as a vegan egg white substitute and it seems that this can be achieved by either dicing the whole plant and steeping it in water for several hours or by boiling the roots in water and simmering it until the water becomes quite thick (Montana Plant Life).
Though not necessarily true for the US, there is a long history of human consumption of plants of genus Malva. Common mallow continues to be used as a folk medicine although this practice is more common in Europe than North America and a common application is as a pain reliever particularly for topical applications. In North America, interest in the common mallow seems more focused around eradication than consumption, again reinforcing that the typical North American view of common mallow is to consider it a weed.
Merriam-Webster’s definition of a weed is cultural, not biological: “a plant that is not valued where it is growing and is usually of vigorous growth“. When plants in nature show a tendency to form large monocultures on their own, taking over space to the detriment of a diversity of species, they’re called aggressive weeds. It seems ironic that when we impose this same structure on the landscape, we call it farming. The difference is simply in the relative utility of the plant to human culture. If corn decided to take over a field on its own, would it be considered an aggressive weed?
Stuff Almost Nobody Knows:
(for the perpetually curious)
Believe it or not, there is a relationship between the common mallow and the marshmallow.
Americans are the main consumers of marshmallows (National Confectioners Association). Marshmallows are made by mixing sugars, water, air and a whipping agent into a foam which is piped through long tubes and then cut into equal pieces. A corn starch coating is the reason the outside of the marshmallow doesn’t stick to your hands is due to a corn starch coating. Gelatin is the aerator most often used in the production of marshmallows. A “typical” marshmallow might contain about 60% corn syrup, 30% sugar, and 1% to 2% gelatin. The USDA has classified a very short list of foods as having minimal nutritional value and for candies, that list includes marshmallows.
Surprisingly, the original marshmallow was a health food.
The marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis) is the name of a plant native to central and southern Europe, North Africa and West Asia. The marsh mallow is a larger cousin of the common mallow which prefers moist soils. Boiling the root of the marsh mallow produces a thick liquid which apparently can become aerated when whipped. As early as 2000 BC, the Egyptians made marshmallows which were a mixture of mallow sap, honey and grains then baked into cakes (Boyer Candy Company, Inc.). Eating Egyptian marshmallows was a privilege strictly reserved for gods and royalty, who used them as a healing food to ease coughs and sore throats.
In the 1800’s in France, marshmallows took a step further away from being a health food and closer to the candy we know. French candy makers whipped sap from the marsh mallow plant with egg whites and corn syrup to create a squishy, easily moldable sweet substance. The next evolution of the recipe replaced mallow root sap with gelatin. The final significant step happened in 1948 when American Alex Doumak created and patented a marshmallow extrusion process that involved taking the mechanically combined marshmallow ingredients and running the aerated mixture through tubes, then cutting the output into equal size pieces (National Confectioners Association). By the 1950’s, the marshmallow as it is now known was familiar to most Americans, the industrially produced product that many consider the highlight of a campfire.
The Egyptians used a mallow plant native to their area to create a unique healing food so treasured it was reserved for royalty only. What can we do our naturalized common mallow? If our focus remains on eradication as opposed to investigation, we’ll probably never find out.
Black Squirrel Farms strives for accuracy but everyone makes mistakes sometimes. We’re happy to update our information if needed. Please contact us if you spot an error or have a suggested edit, update or information inclusion. Help is welcome.
Black Squirrel Farms is not a provider of medical advice. We share information and ideas but do not make health recommendations for or against the use of any traditional medicinal plant for any reason.
Boyer Candy Company, Inc. (Manufacturer of Mallo Cups), History of Marshmallow, https://www.boyercandies.com/mallo-history.aspx, (no date provided), 2020
National Confectioners Association, Marshmallows, https://candyusa.com/marshmallows/, National Confectioners Association, 2020
Hilty, J. Common mallow, Malva neglecta, Mallow family (Malvaceae), https://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/weeds/plants/cm_mallow.htm, illinoiswildflowers.info, 2020.
Montana Plant Life, Common Mallow, Malva neglecta, http://montana.plant-life.org/cgi-bin/species03.cgi?Malvaceae_Malvaneglecta, Montana Plant Life, 2020.
Sweet, H. Common Mallow, a Wild Edible Often Found in Lawns, https://eattheplanet.org/common-mallow-a-wild-edible-often-found-in-lawns/, Eat The Planet, online, May 5, 2020.
USDA, Foods of Minimal Nutritional Value https://www.fns.usda.gov/school-meals/foods-minimal-nutritional-value, Appendix B of 7 CFR Part 210, 2020
Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, “Marshmallow”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshmallow, Wikipedia, 2020