If you like both your food and your vegetable garden to look beautiful, then the Malvas are the plants for you. I grow two: musk mallow (Malva moschata) and common mallow (Malva sylvestris). Musk mallow is the prettiest – even its names are evocative. Its best feature is its flowers, which come either in fairy white or candy pink, are produced throughout the growing season and have a melt-in-the-mouth texture when used in salads. Their one drawback is that they don’t keep for very long once picked and will go rather yucky left in a salad bowl overnight. Their leaves are also useful and – yet again – very attractive, with deeply-cut palmate lobes. They taste fine and look great in a salad but unfortunately I’m not very keen on the texture and prefer them cooked as a pot herb. They are a useful plant for this as they carry on producing leaves throughout the winter.
Musk mallow is usually described as an annual but I have plants that have been going on for several years. It will usually self-seed quite happily and is a strong grower, enough so that it can hold its own naturalised in long grass. It likes a sunny spot.
Common mallow isn’t quite such a beauty as musk mallow, but it is perhaps even more useful. The flowers are smaller but still edible, the leaves are edible all year and its seed heads, known as ‘cheeses’, are edible too. It is a forest plant, meaning that it takes a bit of shade, making it an ideal forest garden inhabitant. All the mallows are members of the Malvaceae, a family that includes hollyhock, abutilon, marsh mallow, Hibiscus, okra (bhindi or lady’s fingers), Lavatera (tree mallows) and Sidalcea (prairie mallows). Pretty much all of them have flowers that are edible to some degree and some have edible leaves or fruits too. One obvious family trait is a certain mucilaginous (okay, slimy) quality, most famous in the okra-based dish gumbo. Both flowers and leaves of mallow have this quality, but not to an unpleasant degree. The people who appreciate mallow most seem to be the Morroccans and all the best mallow recipes come from there. It’s used to thicken a soup called harira which is used to break the fast during Ramadan.
There’s a rather fine recipe for Wild Celery and Common Mallow Harira at eatweeds.co.uk. Professional forager Miles Irving recommends wilted mallow leaf and scrambled egg for breakfast and shares a fascinating recipe for mallow soup with smoked oil. Personally, I’m happy to put mallow leaves in almost anything, including salads, soups, stews, stir fries and pasta sauces, and also use them cooked on their own as a sort of spinach.
One problem with pretty much the whole mallow family is a susceptibility to Puccinia rust, which causes orange flecks to appear on the leaves as if they have indeed gone rusty. One or two varieties of mallow, such as ‘Zebrina’ have been bred for a degree of resistance, but I haven’t found one which is also tolerant of the cold in these parts. I’m hoping to cross Zebrina with a locally-collected strain to produce a cold-tolerant, rust-tolerant mallow.