Garden of Eatin' / You Can Eat That?!

Mallow Weed: The Wild Edible That’s Also a Love Potion

Mallow weed: the wild edible that's also a love potion

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.

In climates where winters are mild, they start popping up in November or December if there have been 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… and no, I’m not talking fennel or dandelions.

Common mallow is a much maligned weed to gardeners who feel the same disdain for other unwanted plants in their yards. (After all, a weed is usually a matter of opinion.)

But did you know this omnipresent weed is an edible and medicinal plant?

Ladybug on little mallow

What is mallow weed?

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(Speaking of marshmallow, the confection eaten today was originally made from the sap of the roots of mallow grown in marshes, hence the name.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 can be an annual, winter annual, or biennial, and is easily recognized by its geranium-like leaves that have five or seven lobes. Some have deeper lobes while others are nearly round.

Cheeseweed grows in disturbed soil
Cheeseweed has geranium-like leaves

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.

Flowers on cheeseweed plant
Mallow flowers

Mallow is sometimes called cheeseweed, and if you look closely at its fruiting head, you’ll see that it resembles a miniature wheel of cheese with wedge-shaped sections.

Common mallow fruits
Fruiting seed head on mallow plant

Mallow as a folk remedy… and a love potion?!

Mallow has a long history in holistic medicine, owing to the fact that the plant — in particular, its roots — has a substantial amount of mucilage (a sticky, jelly-like substance rich in protein and carbohydrates).

Mucilage is what gives mallow its anti-inflammatory properties. Historically, the herb has been used to heal digestive and urinary tract irritations, and even control coughs caused by inflammation.

It’s used in South African medicine as a topical poultice and infusion to heal wounds, and noted as a Native American folk remedy to treat swellings and sores. Modern herbal medicine commonly prescribes mallow as a healing agent for insect bites and swollen muscles.

But my favorite piece of mallow folklore? Its purported magical sexual powers.

In his book Natural History, Pliny the Elder asserted that mallow was an aphrodisiac, and when the seeds were sprinkled “for the treatment of women,” they stimulated sexual desire to “an infinite degree.” (Apparently, placing just three roots near the genitalia produced a similar effect as well.)

But how Pliny discovered this arousing fact is somewhat of a mystery…

The entire mallow plant is edible

Can you eat mallow?

Mallow is indeed edible, but it isn’t the most exciting leafy 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.

(Strange as it sounds, mallow should be thought of as a vegetable — and not a weed to be rid of.)

The leaves 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!)

Tender young mallow leaves

Mallow can be sauteed like most other greens, with oil, onion, and garlic, and maybe a splash of vinegar. You can fry the leaves in oil to make mallow chips, or even try baking them in the oven the way you’d make crispy kale chips.

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 cheese heads are fresh and crisp and can be picked and eaten out of hand. (Though they don’t taste like cheese, in case you were wondering.)

Mallow fruits that give it the name of cheeseweed

Mallow is one of those miracle plants where the whole plant is edible — roots, stems, leaves, flowers, and fruits. I’ve only tried the last three (and only from my own backyard, where I was sure the plant hadn’t been trampled or peed on by passing dogs).

Related: 11 Vegetables You Grow That You Didn’t Know You Could Eat

The flowers have the same nondistinctive flavor as the leaves, while the fruits are pleasant and a little nutty (be 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.

Chickens like mallow too

This post updated from an article that originally appeared on April 22, 2015.

About Author

I'm a plant lover, passionate road-tripper, and cookbook author whose expert advice and bestselling books have been featured in TIME, Outside, HGTV, and Food & Wine. The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook is my latest book. Garden Betty is where I write about modern homesteading, farm-to-table cooking, and outdoor adventuring — all that encompass a life well-lived outdoors. After all, the secret to a good life is... Read more »

27 Comments

  • Chokor Blowta
    November 15, 2020 at 12:55 pm

    Good to read!

    Reply
  • Tamara Hurst
    November 15, 2020 at 12:55 pm

    Just had my first meal of round leaf mallow
    chopped up and added to lightly browned onion in oil in a large pot. when lightly cooked added quite a bit of salt and some dried crushed chili peppers. Cook for another few minutes to rid of most water from washing. Awesome. Filling. Great with fresh squeezed lemon juice if you wish! Scoop up with fresh pita bread.

    Reply
  • Tessa
    November 15, 2020 at 12:55 pm

    I am so glad to read this! I grew up eating the cheese wheels, our local Indian tribes told us that they were healthy, so as a little girl on a farm I use to eat them for fun. Now in my 30s I saw one of the plants and wondered if they were truly edible or if I had actually been poisoning myself. Glad to know I wasn’t haha!

    Reply
  • Jannie Racette
    November 15, 2020 at 12:52 pm

    Such an invasive weed. Almost impossible to get rid of in our flowerbeds in one area. I live in Oregon, my husband has used everything to kill it. In cracks too, gosh, they have super long, and tough roots!

    Reply
  • Learn to Swim
    September 23, 2017 at 11:47 am

    Folks, take note that they can be invasive and are prolific at self seeding

    Reply
    • Linda of Garden Betty
      November 8, 2017 at 9:59 pm

      Hence the term “weed.”

      Reply
      • Learn to Swim
        November 10, 2017 at 3:52 pm

        For certain, though we all know ‘weeds’ can be invasive in varying levels was my point.

        Reply
  • Lucinda Sutherland
    June 29, 2017 at 7:54 pm

    Oh, fun. Thanks for sharing this. Just last summer we were teaching the toddling grandchildren to pick the fruits on this plant. My daughters used to eat them when they were little, too. The kids enjoy finding something in the garden that they can pick at will. I’m glad to know that they can eat the rest of the plant, too. I will have to try harvesting some along with dandelion leaves. I’ve always been concerned that the dandelions would be too strongly flavored so I’m glad to know that I also have an abundant source of a bland leaf to work into the salad.

    Reply
    • Linda of Garden Betty
      June 30, 2017 at 5:09 am

      My 1-year-old also loves to toddle around the garden, looking for things to pick and eat! It’s a blast watching her light up with all that joy and curiosity!

      Dandelions tend to be milder when they’re young, so I recommend picking them when the leaves are super tender and only a few inches long.

      Reply
  • Grateful Patient
    April 6, 2017 at 1:44 pm

    Thank you so much for solving the mystery of the crazy plant that “ate” or maybe that should be “strangled” our volunteer tomato and is now trying to “eat” the back corner of our house! We’ve yet to try and eat the leaves but good to know we can give it a try.

    Reply
  • Patricia M. Bieber
    July 23, 2016 at 1:29 pm

    So thankful for your excellent photographs and clear explanations. These are lovely flowers worth pressing. Just discovered a new friend at a garage sale who had the lovely ‘zebra mallow’ along the side of her little house. Years ago she bought a planter arrangement for her mom and seeds just dispersed and have been producing ever since; and they neve tire of seeing their cheery little faces. I now have seed balls to grow my own, leaves and flowers to press, and plan to make a couple of bookmarks with these lovelies for the lady and her mother.

    Reply
  • Dianna
    June 27, 2016 at 11:57 am

    Thanks for this great article! I just had some mallow in a green smoothie today, and I look forward to eating more of it, since it seems to like my garden.

    Reply
  • Elan
    April 19, 2016 at 5:43 pm

    In Israel it is called “Chubeza” and my cousin an I would collect the leaves, tear them up, mix with egg, flour, chopped onions, salt and pepper. We made thin patties and fried them in a pan with some oil. They are delicious! Like leafy, crispy, potato pancakes.

    Reply
  • zetta
    April 24, 2015 at 5:34 pm

    Thanks for this. I hadn’t thought about mallow in years. It grew wild in my yard in NM but with orange flowers.

    Reply
  • Peggy Zortman
    April 22, 2015 at 4:37 pm

    Mallow! We grow them as flowers. Now I need to run out and see if this is what is growing in front of the barn. You teach me something new every post!

    Reply
  • Sally Landon
    April 22, 2015 at 1:18 pm

    I had no idea this was a mallow, nor that you could eat the whole plant. When I was a kid we called the little round, nutty fruits “bread and butters”….I have no idea why. My brother and I grazed like little goats all through the lawn searching for these treasures. I thought they were the yummiest treat all season.

    Reply

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