Foraged Medicinals: The Wild Malva.

We could probably all agree that one of the best things about camping is when the sun sets and we all come together with family and friends around a warm crackling fire. And, of course, no camping trip is complete without the inevitable roasting of those sticky little treats we call marshmallows.

There's something very nostalgic about whitling the end of a stick and plopping on a squishy marshmallow— slow-roasting it until it attains the perfect balance of creamy... and crispy. Of course, each person has their preference, but I find myself on the low, slow, and golden side of things.

Did you know that marshmallows originate from a plant that grows in marshes?

It's true!

Cousin to the Infamous Marshmallow

The scientific name for this plant is Althaea officinalis (A. officinalis).

The first marshmallows were made by boiling Althaea officinalis (marsh-mallow) roots until they made a dense gel. Next, sugar and gelatin were added, and the mixture was whipped into a fluff. After cooling for several hours, the squishy combination was then cut into what resembles the marshmallows we see on store shelves today.

People still do this.

I have yet to try it, but here's a pretty cool recipe for these homemade sugary treats if you want to try your hand at it.

There are several species of mallow plants, though, and they are worth much more than just sugary confections.

A Bit About Mallows

Anyone who has ever raised a garden might be familiar with Malva neglecta. It's also called Wild Malva, Cheese Weed, or Cheese Plant because of its fruiting pods and seeds, which grow in a cheese wheel pattern. Even though these plants are native to Europe, they can be found annoying gardeners all over the United States.

Many consider the Cheese Plant an invasive weed. The seeds can lay dormant in the soil for several years.

One nick with a plow and this persistent plant generates a tap root that quickly penetrates and drives deep into the ground.

Malva can be tough to pull out, and you may need your shovel to remove them. If left, Malva plants may steal valuable nutrients from your vegetables and other garden plants.

Before You Dig These Little Guys Up

We should talk about how useful they can be for our health. Wild Malva is both medicinal and edible. These wild plants have been used for thousands of years therapeutically. You can eat them and use them topically, and the whole entire plant is edible.

All Mallows are from the Malvaceae family, which also includes plants like okra, aloe and hibiscus. Okra is known for its mucilage properties, just as the Mallow plant is.

This means it has a thick slimy goop in it. That goop is terrific for coating your stomach and intestinal lining. We will examine that a little more in just a minute.

The flowers of a mallow plant resemble a small hibiscus flower and can be white, pink, or purple.

Malva neglecta (M. neglecta) is sometimes considered inferior to the Marshmallow (A. officinalis). However, they are more potent than (M. sylvestris), another common type of Mallow.

Confusing? Alright, enough botany for one article.

Just a note: You should use caution when picking Wild Malva from nitrogen-rich soils. Do not use wild Malva growing around chemically treated crops such as those alongside farm fields.

Eating Mallow

Mallow plants are usable at any age or size, but most people find the younger leaves more suitable in salads and other raw dishes.

I don't personally think that they have much of a taste. I sprinkle torn pieces of Mallow leaves around salads and on top of flatbreads and pasta like a garnish.

Texturally they are very similar to leaf lettuce and maybe even a little sweet and nutty. You can even eat the fruiting pods and seeds.

The leaves can also be baked or dehydrated like kale chips, and dried leaves can be crumbled and used as a vitamin enhancing garnish on just about anything you want.

Try adding the older or larger leaves to soups and smoothies for a nutrition-rich thickener.

Nutritionally, M. neglecta is remarkable. It contains a ton of essential nutrients like:

  • Protein

  • Vitamins C and A

  • Carotenoids

  • Tannins

  • Essential fats—omega-3, omega-6

  • Antioxidants

  • Fiber

  • Calcium

  • Magnesium

  • Potassium

  • Iron

  • Selenium

Medicinal Uses

The lengthy taproot can be dried, shaved, ground up into a powder, or boiled. Often when you buy marshmallow root, it comes powdered or shaved.

Most commercially sold Mallow is typically from the M. sylvestris species, which is different from M. neglecta, but they have similar therapeutic properties.

Boiling can produce a gel used for topical products like skin lotions, serums, and shampoos.

I like to simmer the roots with a bit of chamomile and lavender. I apply this little mixture over my eczema, and it helps to relieve redness and itching!

Both the roots and the leaves are mucigenic; however, the roots tend to be higher in polysaccharides and produce a denser gel. This gel is great for coating and soothing the skin.

The leaves and flowers of Malva have soothing effects and are diuretic, demulcent, and anti-inflammatory, making this precious botanical great for urinary conditions.

The roots have been used successfully for urinary disorders as well, although the root is more commonly used in conjunction with digestive irregularities.

The leaves and flowers of Malva have soothing effects and are diuretic, demulcent, and anti-inflammatory, making this precious botanical great for urinary conditions.

The roots have been used successfully for urinary disorders as well, although it is more common to use the roots in conjunction with digestive irregularities.

A 2019 review of Wild Malva validated its wide range of pharmacological effects. M. neglecta was proven to have antimicrobial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.

A more recent (2021) study also found that the natural phytochemicals in Malva neglecta have the potential to treat and prevent coronaviruses.

The miraculous Malva has been around for centuries—used to treat a wide variety of inflammatory ailments, including:

  • Digestive Issues

  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

  • Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD)

  • Constipation

  • Leaky Gut

  • Inflammation

  • Esophageal Irritation

  • Genitourinary Afflictions

  • Dry Cough

  • Open Wounds

  • Skin Afflictions

  • Sore Throat

  • Swelling (inflammation) of the mouth and throat

Wild Malva is yet another amazing resource we have growing in abundance all around us.

So, the next time you "weed" one of these nifty little plants out of your garden or landscaping... consider saving some to try in a salad, skin serum, or digestive tea.

Sources: Al-Snafi, Ali Esmail. "Medical benefit of Malva neglecta-A review." IOSR Journal of Pharmacy 9.6 (2019): 60-67.

Irfan, Ahmad, et al. "Isolation of phytochemicals from Malva neglecta Wallr and their quantum chemical, molecular docking exploration as active drugs against COVID-19." Journal of Saudi Chemical Society 25.12 (2021): 101358.