Some weeds grow just anywhere, pervasive green presences of which you don't take much notice as you hike along. The common mallow is one, and I welcome it whenever I see it, for it is a friendly and useful plant. From its roots to its edible seed pods, mallow's nutritious and medicinal properties have been known since Pharaonic times, and probably before.
Here in Israel, mallow starts putting forth tiny, heart-shaped leaves everywhere at the beginning of the winter rains in October. By December the leaves are shapely and large, looking something like the geranium; in some parts of the country they grow as big as soup plates. Throughout the winter and spring, the stands will grow up to four feet high, given the right conditions of moisture. In the meadows, on the roadsides, in any vacant lot, competing with cultivated vegetables in the fields, invading your garden - there seems to be no end to that green Nosey Parker. And pollution seems to bother it not at all: sometimes the most beautiful stands will be seen flourishing next to a crowded parking lot.
The roots of mallow are rich in beneficial mucilage. Boiled, they make a drink which is diuretic and soothing to the urinary tract at the same time. This is good wherever there is painful urination. A painful chest, as in bronchitis or flu, can obtain relief from this drink too.
The leaves, dark-green and coarse, are a powerhouse of minerals and vitamins (calcium, iron, vitamin C, copper traces and more) and an abundant, free source of organic nutrition. They also release soothing mucilage. I decoct mallow leaves for my cough or iron tonic syrups, slice it into soup for a cold or flu patient, add them to the infusion for moisturizers.
As a poultice, mallow leaves will draw out boils and pus from old infections. Put a few large leaves in your blender with some mineral water, and apply the green, goopy mask to your teenager's acne for cleansing and healing. If he or she objects, add a drop of essential oil of lavender to make it smell good. Allow it to dry, then rinse off. The skin will look brighter and feel silky.
Rashes and burns can be successfully treated with mallow leaves, crushed or blended. When gathering nettles, I look for a nice big mallow leaf to wrap around the hairy, stinging stalks so I can cut them easily. If I do get stung, a poultice of crushed mallow will take away the irritation quickly.
During the siege of Jerusalem during the War of Independence in 1948, food supplies to the city were cut off and near-famine conditions prevailed in the city. Mallow was an important source of nutrition to the imprisoned population then: the leaves were gathered, chopped fine and fried as patties or eaten raw. The seed pods were collected to eat raw or cooked. (They're not bad raw; I often stop to nibble a few. This I learned from the children, who call them "arab bread", and forage for them all the spring.) Folks who lived in Jerusalem then will serve mallow patties, or stuff the leaves like cabbage rolls on Israeli Independence Day, to commemorate that time.
The pink or purplish, flowers can (and should) be added to any formula for cystits, coughs, and inflammation in the digestive tract. Again, the abundant mucilage, easily released from the flowers, benefits all irritable, painful conditions in these areas.
Mallow has only a neutral, greenish taste, so you can add it to almost any dish at all. Following are some ideas for using mallow to boost the nutritional content of your family fare; you'll get the idea as you read along.
- Wash your mallow carefully, and check for bugs, as you would any other edible leaf. Don't be put off by a few holes: birds peck at mallow, so the holes don't mean that the leaf is infested. Little yellow bumps imbedded in the underside do, however.
- Add whole small leaves to your salad greens: make sure the dressing is a little stronger-tasting than usual, since the taste of raw mallow is sort of uninteresting.
- Almost any soup you cook will accept a handful of chopped leaves, added the last 15 minutes of cooking. Allow the soup to sit a further 10 minutes before serving, to allow the beneficial mucilage (or goop) to be extracted out of the leaves.
- Further tip: soup made for invalids, i.e., cold or flu sufferers, or someone needing a Strengthening Tonic as for after surgery, a bout of illness, etc., can be enriched with the scrubbed, chopped roots of mallow, as well as the leaves. The roots are especially rich in minerals and mucilage, and so especially benefit a patient with a cough.
- Saute your chopped mallow leaves; add to an omelet.
- Stuff and roll the leaves as you would cabbage leaves.
- Stir-fry mallow chopped into ribbons as part of your vegetable stir-fry medley.
Mallow Soup (serves 6 - 8)
1 large onion
1 large tomato
2 bell peppers, preferable of different colors
½ bunch of celery
3 large potatoes
3 garlic cloves
olive oil to cover the bottom of your soup kettle
6 cups of water, enriched with 2 Tblsp. of good-quality soy sauce or the same quantity of chicken broth
2 tsp. salt plus black pepper to taste.
2 large handfuls of clean mallow leaves and/or roots
- Dice the onion; chop tomato, peppers, celery, carrots and potatoes.
- Sauté the onions, adding the other vegetables as the onions start to wilt
- Chop the garlic finely; add to the sautéed vegetables when they are looking golden and start smelling cooked.
- Add water and seasonings; simmer for 15-20 minutes. A nice touch at this point is to blend the cooked vegetables, with some of the soup, and return the blended mass to the pot. Children especially appreciate blended soups.
- Chop the Mallow into narrow ribbons: if using roots, slice finely. Add to the pot and cook a further 10 minutes.
Serve with croutons, or chopped parsley, or simply on its own.
You can use most any Malvaceae in the same way as you can use Malva sylvestris. So you've got Althaea sp., Alcea sp., Malva sp., Lavatera sp., Hibiscus sp., Sphaeralcea sp., Sidalcea sp. etc. etc. growing in your garden or in that nearby wild spot? Pick the leaves and (where applicable) roots, and use them. Some species (for instance, most species in the genus Sphaeralcea) have itchy hairs, so don't use the leaves of these as wild food, and use a coffee filter before you ingest teas made from them. Other species (like Hibiscus sabdariffa) have a very sour tang to the flowers, so don't use them in quite as large quantities. But they all contain loads of mucilage in all parts, and they all help your mucous membranes.