I like several varieties of plants in the large mallow (malvaceae) family, most particularly the older common varieties rather than the showy hollyhocks and hibiscus which are really too big for my garden. There are musk mallows and malva sylvestris at the front of one border, but in the back is my very favorite: marsh mallow, or althaea officinalis. This is an old, fabled plant which is tall and velvety, with soft pink flowers, appearing just about now. Like all plants which officinalis status, marsh mallow was an important medicinal plant in the ancient, medieval, and early modern eras, the basis of soothing syrups and balms for throats, stomachs, skin–even teeth. The marsh mallow plant had edible uses in the past too: its sap was extracted and mixed with nuts and honey (and later sugar and corn syrup) to make a confection, and its root was boiled for use in both sweets and “sallets”. Modern marshmallows have no marsh mallow in them, but several “organic” skin creams do. I looked in vain through my sixteenth-sources for a sweet marsh mallow recipe, but found it as a principal ingredient in one of the recipes to cure lovesickness in Jacques Ferrand’s classic seventeenth-century treatise. So there you are: a plant that is both utilitarian and beautiful.
Above: my marsh mallows. Below, hollyhocks in the Ropes Mansion Garden–I’m showing you close-ups rather than the entire plants because they seem to be stricken with some sort of rusty disease. My other mallows have this too–not very attractive–but the marsh mallows seem immune!
Salem-born Fidelia Bridges’ Marsh Mallows, produced for Prang in the 1880s, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.