The malva sylvestris, known simply as mallow or wild mallow, is a very common wild plant holds a long history in itself.
Since ancient times, it has been known and used for its various therapeutic properties. It has also been used in cooking for a long time to prepare dishes typical of popular tradition.
Let’s get to know this plant better, its history, characteristics, and the best period for harvesting. Additionally, we’ll explore the natural elements that constitute it and how it can still be used today for its extraordinary properties.
Malva sylvestris, History
Malva sylvestris is a perennial herbaceous plant (rarely annual) belonging to the botanical family Malvaceae. Its name comes from the Greek malákhe, meaning “soft”, referring to its emollient properties due to its high content of mucilage. It is a “gentle” plant; in the language of flowers, its name means “gentleness”.
Many illustrious figures celebrated its virtues. In ancient Rome, for example, Cicero and Cato used it extensively at their tables to revitalize themselves. The poet Martial, on the other hand, used it to recover from the revelries of alcohol. Pliny the Elder, a great lover of plants, considered it a veritable panacea with aphrodisiac properties.
In medieval times, it was believed that the consumption of this plant favored a well-behaved conduct, and thus, it was used as a remedy for all ailments and renamed omnimorbia.
The great emperor Charlemagne, being a great enthusiast of edible and medicinal plants, demanded that there be a cultivation of mallow in his personal gardens.
The Mallow Plant, Botanical Characteristics
Wild mallow is a plant with very robust stems, woody at the base, bristly, and covered with a light fuzz. It reaches an average height of 60 cm, but there may be branches that exceed one meter.
The plant has a long and fleshy taproot, which during the first year generates a rosette of basal leaves.
The leaves have a long petiole, are palmate, with a circular outline, and a pentagonal shape.
Finally, the flowers are found in the axil of the leaves, usually grouped in small clusters of 2 to 6, more rarely solitary. They are pinkish-lilac in color, with distinctive longitudinal purple veins. The particular color of the flowers gives rise to the term “mallow color”.
Flowering occurs between May and August. Being a nectar-rich plant, it serves as an excellent source of nectar for bees.
Natural Habitat and Harvesting Period
Malva sylvestris is widespread throughout our territory, from the plains up to 1,600 meters in altitude. It prefers fallow fields, road edges, ditches, and backfill soils. It is, therefore, a very easy plant to find. Its young leaves and flowers are used, so the best period for harvesting coincides with late spring-summer flowering.
Malva sylvestris is widely used in herbal medicine. Its main constituents are: a high content of mucilage, flavonoids, anthocyanin compounds, vitamins of group B (B1, B2), vitamins A and C, beta-carotene, mineral salts such as potassium, glucose, calcium oxalate, resins, pectin, and proteins. The flowers also contain the essential oil and the malvin glucoside.
All these elements, combined together, give it the following properties: emollient, soothing, anti-inflammatory, expectorant, antispasmodic, and mildly laxative.
For example, the anti-inflammatory and emollient properties are exploited through the preparation of infusions and decoctions, and they serve to alleviate, with internal use, infections of the oral and intestinal cavity. These include bronchitis, cough, throat infections, catarrh, asthma, and gastritis.
For external use, mallow can be used as a mouthwash. It is effective for inflammatory conditions of the mucous membranes, mouth, throat, toothache, and bleeding gums. In this case, in addition to the infusion used as a mouthwash, you can directly apply the crushed leaves and flowers to the painful area.
The emollient and soothing action of mallow poultices is also useful in case of itching and reddened skin. For example, if you go for a walk in the mountains and come into contact with nettle, look for mallow and rub its leaves on the affected skin. You will immediately notice rapid relief.
Mallow is also used as a mild laxative, being a good regulator of intestinal function. It also has an important protective action that it exerts with its mucilage on inflamed intestinal mucosa.
If you don’t have easy access to the plant, especially its flowers, you can find ready-to-use preparations online, such as mallow tea (available here), the infusion, or the essential oil.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that in the industrial field, malva sylvestris is used to prepare toothpaste, mouthwashes, eye drops, intimate hygiene products, and more.
Uses in Cooking
There are interesting traditional recipes related to the culinary uses of mallow. For these preparations, especially the leaves or young shoots are used, which are consumed as a simple salad. Mallow has a strong taste, which is not pleasing to everyone, so many recommend mixing it with other vegetables or wild herbs, such as dandelion or purslane.
Its younger branches, after light cooking, are excellent to be used as side dishes. In this case, simply season them with oil, salt, vinegar, or lemon.
In some dishes, this plant is used as an ingredient to fill stuffed pasta, such as ravioli, or in the dough of meatballs or tasty omelets. Lastly, mallow flowers are mainly used to prepare batter and then be fried.
- MDPI: “Near-Zero Temperatures Arrest Movement of the Diaheliotropic Malva sylvestris” – This study presents the diaheliotropic leaf movement pattern of Malva sylvestris in relation to the impact of low temperature, exploring movement characteristics and plant function aspects.
- MDPI: “The Lubricating Effect of Eye Drops Containing Hyaluronic Acid and Mallow Extract in Patients with Dry Eye Disease—A Pilot Study” – This pilot study investigates the combined lubricating effect of hyaluronic acid and mallow extract in treating dry eye disease.
- MDPI: “Development and Application of Edible Coatings with Malva sylvestris L. Extract to Extend Shelf-Life of Small Loaf” – Research studies the influence of Malva sylvestris L. flowers’ extract on edible coatings to retard moisture evaporation and mold growth in bakery products.
- MDPI: “Walking around the Autonomous Province of Trento (Italy): An Ethnobotanical Investigation” – An ethnobotanical survey in Caspoggio, Italy, investigates the traditional uses of medicinal plants, including Malva sylvestris.
- MDPI: “Seasonal Fluctuations of Crop Yield, Total Phenolic Content and Antioxidant Activity in Fresh or Cooked Borage, Mallow and Buck’s-Horn Plantain Leaves” – Study examines seasonal variations in yield, phenolic content, and antioxidant activity of wild edible plants, including Malva sylvestris.
- MDPI: “Effect of Artemisia absinthium and Malva sylvestris on Antioxidant Parameters and Abomasal Histopathology in Lambs Experimentally Infected with Haemonchus contortus” – Evaluates the effect of dry wormwood and mallow on the gastrointestinal parasite Haemonchus contortus in lambs.
- MDPI: “Anti-Inflammatory Effect of Malva sylvestris, Sida cordifolia, and Pelargonium graveolens Is Related to Inhibition of Prostanoid Production” – Investigates the ability of plant extracts, including Malva sylvestris, to reduce inflammation by inhibiting specific mediators.