It’s so rewarding for our health (and hip-pocket) to get to know the plant friends growing everywhere around us, and so much the better when those friends are tasty—in that category, wild-growing Mallow has plenty to offer a weed forager. And yes, if you’re wondering, its distant relative the Marsh Mallow (Althaea officinalis) is what the tasty confectionary of the same name was originally made from before they switched to using starch instead.
Mallow has stiff branching stems and soft, slightly furry leaves that look similar to a Geranium. Given enough time to grow undisturbed, it can reach a surprising height of a metre or more, but usually it is found earlier on while still below 50 cm or so. Its small purple flowers start appearing in clusters near the top of the plant in late Spring and give way to cute little round seed pods by summer—these are reminiscent of miniature green pumpkins and are known colloquially as “cheeses”.
In suburban Melbourne, Mallow can be found in almost every soil patch that the sun touches. It doesn’t die off in winter so it can be found year-round. Take a look in your garden because it’s very likely to be there if you haven’t weeded for a while, but if not then the edges of other people’s front gardens are a good bet. It also tends to grow along the edges of railways and in local parks. Be aware though that public areas may have been sprayed with weed killer, so use common sense and avoid collecting anything if you think this might be the case or might have been done recently, even if the plants seem to be growing well.
Mallow is high in nutrients like calcium, iron and zinc (although the amounts of these depends on what they can get out of the soil) and all parts of it can be eaten. It has a soft, gelatinous texture with a pleasant taste which is less bitter than many other wild edible plants. The leaves and seed pods make a great addition to salads. It can also be added to smoothies, seasoned and cooked in boiling water instead of silver beet or spinach, or added to soups—anything you can think of really that can handle a bit of a green boost that won’t overpower the other flavours. The roots are not toxic but you might have to get a bit more creative to prepare these in a way that tastes good!
All types of mallow are valued for their slimy mucilaginous properties which help reduce inflammation. You can use the chopped roots or the leaves and make an infusion—either in hot water for a short time or cold water overnight. An infusion of Mallow can help heal sore throats, coughs and skin infections if used directly on the wound. It is also soothing to the digestive tract, although the roots the Marsh Mallow species are considered better for this.
In small edible quantities like the occasional salad or similar, it is unlikely that mallow will cause any unwanted side-effects. But if you suspect you are having any kind of bad reaction, or you are pregnant or are taking medication and want to know if it is safe to eat, please consult a medical herbalist/professional—it’s not worth the risk to guess.