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Idaho Mountain Wildflowers

The Mallow Family, Malvaceae

The mallow family is a moderately large one of approximately 197 genera and 2,850 species worldwide. It takes its name from the Latin word malva, used in the past for various mallows. The family has considerable economic importance. Gossypium species include cotton plants, important for their textile fiber and for oil extracted from their seeds. Species of hibiscus and the related rose-of-sharon (Hibiscus spp.) are ornamental garden plants. Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus (L) Moench) is also a Malvaceae. The hollyhock (Alcea rosea l.) is another popular garden mallow. Most mallows are easily recognizable. Their flowers are five-petaled and grow in terminal clusters. “Staminate tubes” formed by fusion of the filaments of the anthers protrude from the center of the flowers (very noticeable in the hibiscus, but present in all) and help with identification.

Gooseberryleaf globe mallow, Sphaeralcea grossulariifolia (Hook. & Arn.) Rydb. (left). This plant is sometimes considered a weed because of its casual growth along trails and roadsides. If one believes that weeds are competitive, harmful plants then this plant is getting a bad press. It is non-aggressive and its five-petaled orange flowers brighten the landscape. The Greek sphaera means “globe” and alcea for the name of the hollyhock. The species name grossulariifolia is also from the Latin and means “gooseberry leafs,” from the similarity of this plant’s leaves to those of the common gooseberry.

Streambank globe mallow, Iliamna rivularis (Douglas ex Hook.) Greene (right). This mallow is sometimes referred to as a wild hollyhock (although true hollyhocks are in genus Alcea). The name Iliamna apparently came from an Athabaskan word, used for Lake Iliamna in Alaska; rivularis, means “of brooklets.” The latter is an apt term, for this lovely montane plant blooms in mid-summer along streams, and in dry creek beds. Its showy pink flowers, the flowers’ staminate tubes, and alternating maple-like leaves identify the plant.

Oregon checkermallow, Sidalcea oregona (Nutt. ex Torr. & A. Gray) A. Gray (left, right). Flowers in the mallow family are often showy. This plant is an example. It is tall with veined, small, light pinkish-to-purple flowers borne in spike-like clusters (“racemes”) atop a tall stem. Its alternate leaves are made up of deeply dissected narrow leaflets. It is often seen along roadsides, in moist meadows and with sagebrush, where it blooms in mid-summer. The generic name, Sidalcea, was derived from the names of two European mallows: hollyhock (alcea) and sida (the latter is the fanpetal plant).

Cheeseweed, Malva parviflora L. The common cheeseweed, shown on the left, and the closely related and very similat dwarf mallow, Malva neglecta Wallr. (not shown) are common Eurasian weeds found throughout the United States and Canada, growing to fairly high elevations in our mountains. They are easily identified by their round leaves and white flowers with pale purple markings. Their fruit resembles small round cheeses whence the common name "cheeseweed."  Both the fruit and leaves are edible, and are used for food in other countries.

Common mallow, Malva sylvestris L. (right). True mallows—species of Malva—are Eurasian plants. Several species arrived in the New World centuries ago and are now at home in North America. The common mallow would certainly place high on anyone’s list of showy weeds; it resembles a small hollyhock with attractive, purple-streaked, five-petaled flowers. More common in the Pacific coastal states, it is now sometimes found at higher elevations in Idaho. While Americans do not recognize it as a food plant, its leaves have long been used as greens, both raw and cooked.

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