One of the most important plant families in the world are the mallows. Not only are mallows wonderful ornamental garden plants, they are also widely cultivated for food (edible mallows include okra, marshmallows, chocolate), drink (herbal tea, cola) and for fiber (cotton, kenaf, jute). Although most mallows are tropical, it is a large family (over 1000 species) so there are still many mallows that are perennial in temperate gardens. Don't let your garden go fallow. Plant a mallow! Just avoid the weedy common mallow, Malva neglecta.
What makes a mallow, a mallow? Mallow plants are defined to include all members of the plant family Malvaceae which are distinguished from other plants by having a unique floral anatomy. Mallow plant stamens (the male sex parts) are fused together into a tube that surrounds the pistil (female sex part) and the whole structure looks like a funny bottle brush. In addition, mallows produce lots of gooey mucilage in the leaves, stems, roots and immature seed pods...which is what okra is. This syrupy, gelatinous goo is valuable in cooking as it thickens soups and sauces, and can be whipped to make marshmallows.
Mallow flowers range in size from small (shallow mallow) 3/4" wide Malvaviscus blooms up to the gigantic, dinner-plate sized flowers of hardy Hibiscus (a mallow to hallow). Mallow flowers are typically red, pink, mauve or purple but occasionally can be found in white (a more mellow mallow) and pale shades of yellow (a sallow mallow), or sometimes blue (an indigo mallow).
There are many ornamental mallow plants (say that five times, fast) that look great in the temperate garden. Here in our Raleigh, NC garden we grow perennial Abutilon, Alcea, Callirhoe, Gossypium, Hibiscus, Iliamna, Kosteletzkya, Malva, Lavatera, Malvaviscus, Napaea, and Pavonia. When you are ready to buy mallow plants for your garden, check out our online list of mallow plants for sale.
Trivia - Mallow is also the name of a city in Ireland, the administrative head of county Cork. There are cities in Virginia and Iran also named Mallow. Go figure! The term 'mallow' is derived from middle english 'malue' and basically means 'the color mauve' which is the color of the eponymous mallow, the genus Malva.