Every spring, the first signs of life in my mulch (and everywhere else in my garden and neighborhood) are these ubiquitous weeds. You probably have them too. They invade lawns, landscapes, parkways, parking lots, drainage ditches, and all nooks and crannies when the weather is cool and damp.
Here in Los Angeles where our winters are mild, they start popping up in November or December if we’ve had some early rains. They usually appear in neglected areas and it doesn’t take long for a few plants to overrun a plot. With deep woody taproots and a fast growing habit, they’re often considered invasive.
Mallow is a much maligned weed to gardeners who feel the same disdain for dandelions. But did you know this common weed is actually edible?
Common mallow (Malva neglecta — how appropriately named) and little mallow (Malva parviflora) belong to the same family of plants as marshmallow and hibiscus. (Speaking of marshmallow, the confection eaten today was originally made from the sap of the roots of mallow grown in marshes, hence the name. Though candy makers now use gelatin in place of the sap, the name has stuck since the early 1800s when it was introduced to France.)
The plant is easily recognizable by its geranium-like leaves with five or seven lobes. Some have deeper lobes while others are nearly round.
Its flowers seem small and drab compared to its dramatic display of leaves, which look their best in winter and spring when the ground is moist.
Mallow is sometimes called cheeseweed, and if you look closely at its fruiting head, it resembles a miniature wheel of cheese with wedge-shaped sections.
It doesn’t taste like cheese, however. While mallow is edible, it isn’t the most exciting green you can forage from your yard. It has a mild, almost nonexistent flavor, and that probably works to its advantage. Like tofu, it just takes on the flavor of everything else in your bowl.
So why would you eat it? For starters, mallow is highly nutritious. The plant is exceptionally rich in vitamins A, B, and C, along with calcium, magnesium, and potassium. The tender young leaves actually have one of the highest amounts of vitamin A in any vegetable.
They also have a mucilaginous quality, similar to okra, and can be used to thicken soups and stews. (I’m personally waiting for the next round of mallow to spring up in my garden so I can try it in my gumbo!) When using the leaves raw, I like to mix mallow into a bed of other salad greens to counter that slight viscous texture. You can’t really tell once it’s dressed and tossed with your favorite salad accouterments — or you might even like it as-is in its raw, natural state.
The whole plant is edible — root, stems, leaves, flowers, and fruits. I’ve only tried the last three. The flowers have the same nondistinctive flavor of the leaves, while the fruits are pleasant and a little nutty (make sure to pick them when they’re still fresh and green).
I’ll admit that I don’t go out of my way to forage for mallow, but it’s fun to find in my garden because it’s essentially free food. I like to add a few leaves of this wild weed to a spring salad once in a while (along with my other favorite weeds, nasturtiums and dandelions).
That is, if my chickens don’t get to it first.