Mallow - Forgotten, Rare, and Less-Known Vegetables - A Curious History of Vegetables: Aphrodisiacal and Healing Properties, Folk Tales, Garden Tips, and Recipes - Wolf D. Storl

A Curious History of Vegetables: Aphrodisiacal and Healing Properties, Folk Tales, Garden Tips, and Recipes - Wolf D. Storl (2016)

Forgotten, Rare, and Less-Known Vegetables

Mallow (Malva subspecies)

Family: Malvaceae: mallow or hibiscus family

Names of various species: Malva alcea: great musk mallow, hollyhock mallow; M. nelecta: cheeseweed, button weed, dwarf mallow; M. sylvestris: cheeses, fairy cheeses, high mallow, mauve des bois, tall mallow, wood mallow; M. verticillata: Chinese mallow, cluster mallow, tree mallow; Althaea officinalis: marsh-mallow.

Healing Properties: softens abscesses, heals burns, soothes eyes, reduces inflammation (anti-inflammatory), soothes irritation of upper air passages and intestines; as a demulcent it protects mucous membranes

Symbolic Meaning: forgiveness, charitableness, blessing, loyalty; temperance, controlling passion; spiritual vision; St. Simon (Christian); Freya (Germanic tribes)

Planetary Affiliation: Venus

The various perennial mallows, of the hibiscus family, are very rewarding members of a garden. They are easy to care for, needing only some compost and rock flour. Plus, the many different, mostly pinkish blossoming mallows number among the most beautiful wild flowers one can find. But these plants also used to be important vegetables—and should be still.

The mallow deserves much more appreciation than it’s been given. For example, in ancient times in the Mediterranean region young mallow shoots were looked down on as merely a vegetable for the poor. In the Bible it is mentioned only in times of hunger: “Hence they were forced to flee into the deserts both for shelter and sustenance, and were put to sorry shifts indeed, when they cut up mallows by the bushes, and were glad to eat them, for want of food that was fit for them” (Job 30:4). In Germany it was also called “St. John’s cheese” because, along with locusts, mallow was what the evangelist ate during his time in the desert. (Before the seeds develop completely, the blossoms turn into delicious tight little pods that resemble cheese wheels.) The poor fellaheen—peasant farmers—in Egypt also used to eat mallows.

However, mallows are more than mere food for the needy. The Egyptian national dish melokhia—finely chopped mallow leaves cooked in chicken broth with garlic browned in olive oil and cayenne pepper—is a delicacy (Hollerbach 1998, 135). Russians add young mallow leaves to soups, salads, and side dishes and they dry them for seasoning soups and sauces. They also marinate the not-quite-ripened fruits (the “cheese wheels”) and add them to soljanka, rassolnik, and borscht. When used in salads the cheeses are cooked first; for pierogi and purée they are finely chopped or ground (Koschtschejew 1990, 61). In my experience the delicate flavor of the “cheeses” enrich any vegetable dish. The beautiful mauve-colored blossoms often decorate my fresh garden salads, along with the also-edible orange nasturtium, blue borage, and white daisy. In China and India various subspecies (M. sylvestris) are cultivated for soup vegetables. In fact, the giant, seven-foot-tall Chinese mallow (M. verticillata) has been cultivated as a vegetable for so long that no wild varieties remain.

Illustration 92. Mallow

Archeological finds in Lusatia, eastern Germany, indicate that mallows were intensively gathered during the last Ice Age. The Germanic tribal people planted mallows in their “kitchen or leek gardens” alongside various other greens. The taller varieties, such as the Malva sylvestris, served as both food and fiber. As with hemp and nettles, bast fibers of mallow were processed into rope and cloth. In some parts of Europe Malva sylvestris is still referred to as “hemp mallow.” (The mallow Queensland hemp has bast fibers that are even stronger than jute.) As a cloth plant—a “woman’s” plant—the Germanic tribes dedicated the mallow to the goddess Freya. Naturally these tribes also used the plant for healing purposes, including for diseases sent by “water elves” that we no longer know today (Wheelwright 1974, 103). Anglo-Saxons are said to have planted common mallow on their gravesites; indeed, in Lower Austria mallow is still included in the selection of obligatory graveyard plants.

For the Greeks and Romans the mallow (from the Greek malakos = soft) was a symbol for gentleness, mildness, and control over passion. Galenic doctors describe the mallow as cooling and as an anaphrodisiac. This interpretation predestined the flower to become a Christian symbol, one of forgiveness: just as the muculent plant softens and heals hardened boils, it can also forgive the sins of a hardened soul. And all of the mallows, especially the hollyhock mallow (M. alcea), were considered good for the eyes. In the Middle Ages mallow was also called “Herba Simeonis” (St. Simon’s herb) because the venerable old blind man cleared his dulled eyes by rinsing them with tea made of the roots; he later blessed the plant that had enabled him to recognize the baby Jesus as the Messiah (Luke 2:22-40). Even today country people in Europe dig out mallow roots on St. Simon’s Day (October 8) before sunrise to make an amulet against eye disease or for a decoction for eye treatment.

Toward the end of the Middle Ages, the mallow was part of a test for virginity: a mallow on which a girl was made to urinate was kept for three days; if it dried up within that time, she was deemed “no longer a maiden, but had rolled in the clover aplenty.” The same process was applied to test a woman’s fertility: if the mallow dried up within three days, she was infertile; if the plant remained green, she was deemed able to have children (Baechtold-Staubli 1987, 1559).

Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) put the mallow plant under the rule of Venus. He recommended cooking the unripe seed capsules into a decoction to use as both an enema and as a cure for painful urination. In traditional healing lore, mallow poultices were known to have an anti-inflammatory, softening, soothing effect in treating wounds and burns. The plant still has a place of honor in modern phytotherapy, its mucilage used to soothe mucinous tissue in the air passage (nose and throat) and in the digestive tract (stomach, intestines, urinary organs, and rectum). The mucus has also the effect of smothering bacteria.

One of the mallows—the marshmallow (Althea officinalis)—has an especially thick, slimy root. Apothecaries in Europe made it into a syrup for coughing, intestinal ailments, and uroliths. But the French took it in a different direction, creating from it a foamy concoction cooked with egg white, sugar, rose water, and spices that was sold in candy stores as “pâté de gimauve”—forerunner of the campfire-toasted treat still enjoyed today. However, unfortunately, nowadays the foamy substance is made of sugar, corn starch, whipped gelatin, and artificial flavors and colors.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century the mallow made cultural history once more when its delicate color became fashionable after British “Royals” took a special liking to it. Thereafter, curtains, carpets, tablecloths, clothes, even writing paper were all colored mauve—“mauve” being the French word for mallow. And as for the mallow in the language of flowers: to give someone mallows is to say, “I value you as my dearest friend.”


Mallow Blossoms with Dandelion Salad ✵ 2 SERVINGS

1 cup (225 grams) tender dandelion leaves ✵ 2 tablespoons mallow blossoms ✵ SAUCE: 1 tablespoon sesame seeds, roasted and ground ✵ 1 tablespoon sumac ✵ 2 tablespoons hazelnut oil ✵ 4 tablespoons vegetable broth ✵ dab of mustard ✵ sea salt ✵ pepper

In a serving bowl, mix the sesame seeds, sumac, hazelnut oil, and vegetable broth. Add the dandelion leaves and mallow blossoms and toss until evenly covered. Serve.

Mallow Blossom and Onion Cream Cheese Spread ✵ 4 SERVINGS

2 cups (455 grams) onions, finely chopped ✵ 2 tablespoons olive oil ✵ ground coriander ✵ sea salt ✵ 1 cup (225 grams) cream cheese ✵ 4 tablespoons mallow blossoms

In a large pan sauté the onions in the olive oil for about ten minutes or until golden brown. Season with the coriander and salt to taste. Let cool for about 30 minutes. Add the cream cheese and mallow blossoms. Stir until combined.

TIP: This also makes an excellent vegetable dip.