Mallow

The common or tall mallow has suffered by comparison with its more famous cousin, the marsh mallow, the only member of the family to be an "official" herb. But marsh mallow is rare as a wild plant and moreover is dug up for its root, so for the many soothing qualities of mallow, internal and external, the common form offers a highly effective alternative.

Description: A tall or sprawling perennial growing to 3 feet tall with pinkish-purple flowers and ivy-shaped leaves.

Habitat: Roadsides and bare ground.

Malvaceae Mallow family

Distribution: Native to Europe and northern Africa, but widespread as an introduced species in North America where it is known as tall mallow.

Related species: Marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis) is now quite rare in its native habitats but is easily grown as a garden plant.

Parts used: Leaves and flowers collected in summer.

The latest official list of British herbs, the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia 1996, describes only one mallow, the marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis), which has become rare in the wild in the British Isles. For commercial use it is now imported from eastern Europe. The confection "marshmallow" was once cooked from the roots of this plant but has long since ceased to be made of anything herbal.

Its abundantly found cousin, the common, high or blue mallow (Malva sylvestris), has many of the same benefits, so, in the spirit of responsible herbal medicine, we recommend its use.

The common mallow does have its advocates, among them Maria Treben in twentieth-century Austria and the journalist and traveler William Cobbett in early nineteenth-century England. Cobbett offers a remarkable encomium of wild mallows, having learned of their value from a French military captive, a follower of Napoleon, in Long Island, New York.

The English farrier, A. Lawson, writing after Cobbett, quotes his own experience of using boiled mallow leaves to treat the badly swollen arm of a nearby farmer and to close a deep wound in a pig that had been gored by a cow's horn. Lawson quotes Cobbett with approval:

This weed is perhaps amongst the most valuable of plants that ever grew Its leaves stewed, and applied wet, will cure, and almost instantly cure, any cut or bruise or wound of any sort And its operation is in all cases so quick that it can hardly be believed.

For her part, Treben writes of making up a mallow gargle to treat a man with cancer of the larynx. She used the residue of the mallow mixture, mixed with barley flour, as an overnight poultice for the man's throat. Within two weeks, he was well enough to consider a return to his profession of teaching. The man's medical specialist said of Treben, "This woman deserves a gold medal!"

Now a person must be almost criminally careless not to make a provision of this herb.. If the use of this weed were generally adopted, the art and mystery of healing wounds, and of curing sprains, swellings and other external maladies, would very quickly be reduced to an unprofitable trade.

- Cobbett (c1820s)

At an earlier date, Nicholas Culpeper had written movingly of saving his son from "inside plague" by using a mallow liquor [see panel on right]. In the sixteenth century and later, mallow had a reputation as omnimorbia, literally a cure-all. This could have been because mallow is laxative, and this was thought to rid the body of all disease.

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