Cheeseweed - The Common Mallows


Because of its dissipated appearance and enormous profusion on waysides and in vacant lots during north-ern California winters, mallow (Malva spp.) is one of the last uncultivated herbs I would have considered eating. My mis-take. Several species of weedy Malva have been used interchange-ably for food, tea, and medicine for 4W 4" thousands of years-among them little mallow (Malva parviflora L. #3 MALPA), common mallow (M. neglecta Wallr. # MALNE), round-leaf mallow (M. rotundifolia L.), and high mallow (M. sylvestris L. # MALSI).


In the first century A.D., the Greek herbalist Pedamus Dioscorides (3) wrote paradoxically that mallow was "bad for the stomach, and good for the belly ...... Ointment prepared from the plant provided relief from bee and wasp stings. An ointment made with salt and honey cured ulcers of the eye, ointment made with oil helped burns and skin inflammations, and "if a man beforehand be anointed therewith ... hee remaines unstrikable." In addition, mallow soothed various gnaw-ing internal pains and "doth assuage the griefs about ye bladder" (3). Medieval doctors recommended it for illnesses of the bladder, kidneys, and bowels-strong decoctions of it "provoketh lusty urine" (11). In the United States in the 19th century, it was prescribed as "an excellent demulcent in coughs [and] irritations of the air passages. . . " (11). The soothing mucilage found in its leaves may have made malva useful in cough syrups (15). Some still use malva extract for coughs and colds and for irritations of the alimentary canal (11). Romans "ate the seed and boiled the leaves like cabbage" (11). The Roman poet Horace (65-8 B.C.) wrote that eating mallow "develops the intellectual faculties and encourages the practice of virtue." Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79), author of the immense Natural History and adviser to Roman statesmen, declared that "any person taking a spoonful of common Mallow will that day be spared from all maladies that might come his way" (2). (Pliny neglected to eat his mallow on the morning of Aug. 24, A.D. 79, and subsequently suffocated during the eruption of Vesuvius.) Pythagoras wrote that eating the plant "reduced the passions" and cleansed the stomach and mind (11).

Children traditionally have eaten the green immature fruits of malva. The sepals need not be removed. Raw, these fruits are crisp and slightly sweet; according to Harrington (7), they are good for salads, pickling, or soups. The malvas are related to okra [Abelmoschus esculentus (L.) Moench], and the fruits make good culinary sense viewed in this context. People of many countries eat malva's young tender shoots and leaves as a potherb, salad green, or soup vegetable. These parts have a mild flavor and a mucilaginous juice (7). The leaves and stems of dried young plants can be brewed into tea; natural food vendors even sell them commercially for this purpose (7). Mallows are studied for use as forage, fodder, or silage. However, horses, sheep, and cattle reportedly have exhibited signs of poisoning after eating fresh mallow (5). The symptoms, muscular tremors called `shivers' or `staggers,' have been experimentally verified in Australia and reported from Africa but have not been confirmed in the United States (10). Most animals apparently recover if kept calm. Toxicologists have not discovered the toxic principle (5). Ingestion by chickens causes egg yolks to leak iron and turn pink; this is caused by the unsaturated fatty acids malvalic acid and sterculic acid (5). Toxic concentrations of nitrates have been found in M. parviflora (10).


Our English word "mallow" and the genus name Malva have a common root in the Greek malache or malakos, meaning "soft" (9). Etymologists do not know whether this refers to the plant's downy leaves, to th "soothing, gelatinous properties of the roots" uses medicinally (4), to the emollient which can be mad from the seeds or leaves, or to the relaxing powers o tea made from the plant (17). Around 1000 A.D., the name of this plant was written as malwe, malua, mealwan, and mealuwe (13). Nov most European languages have recognizably simila common names for mallow (13). The French call i "mauve," from the same root as mallow; in Enghsb this word has come to designate a color often found iv mallow flowers. Malache also has given us "malachite' (copper ore)-a stone "the same shade of green a mallow leaves" (4).

Carolus Linnaeus published the malva species name parviflora, sylvestris, and rotundifolia in Species Plan tarum in 1753. Linnaeus named parviflora from thi Latin parvus (little) and Flora, goddess of flowers (9) He may have named sylvestris from the Latin for "o: the woods."

Linnaeus originally created the specific name rounn. difolia from the Latin rotundus (round) and foliun (leaf) (9). James Edward Smith (1759-1828) mysteriously renamed the species as M. pusilla in 1795. Car: Friedrich Wilhelm Wallroth (1792-1857) decided that pusilla actually comprised two distinct species, an distinguished M. neglecta as a separate species in 1821 (1). Somewhere in the vague history of malva nomenclature, pusilla lost favor, and rotundifolia was restored Though the Weed Science Society of America3 considers rotundifolia a synonym for neglecta, European specialists recognize both species.

Neglecta comes from the Latin neglectus, meaning neglected or not chosen-from nec (not) and lego (to choose or gather) (9). As Zhndahl (17) suggests, "Neglecta is a rather good name for a weed because when it is neglected, it will soon gain your attention. . . ." However, he points out that the name makes more etymological sense as meaning a plant not gathered for food. Whether the Latin word implies unjust abandonment, like its English equivalent might, I leave to linguistic scholars and to those who have eaten mallow.

According to Dioscorides (3), the Romans referred to mallow as hortensis [of or for the garden (9)]. The Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras (ca. 580-500 B.C.) called it anthema [flower or herb (9)]. The Persian prophet Zoroaster (ca. 628-551 B.C.) called it diadesma [a connecting band (16)]. Egyptians called it chocorten, the Magi caprae lien [possibly spleen of a she-goat (9), or more likely related to capreida, a diuretic plant (16)], others muris cauda [mouse tail (9)]. The common names cheeseweed or cheeses come from the ring of carpels left after the petals fall; this looks like a little cheese wheel (14). Other `cheesy' names include Dutch cheese, doll cheeses, fairy cheeses, cheese flower, and pick-cheese (1). The plant also has been called pellas (1), dwarf mallow, running mallow, round dock, shirt-button plant, and maul (6).


Most mavas are annual or biennial, reproducing from seeds. The plants frequent cultivated ground, new lawns, farmyards, and waste places (12). Depending on the species, cheeseweed varies from prostrate to more-or-less erect (14). It has procumbent, hairy, leafy stems (12). The plant makes a loose circle 45 to 60 cm (18 to 24 inches) in diameter (14). Malvas have round leaves the "size of a dollar" (14) and roughly the shape of geranium leaves. These leaves are alternate, simple, and palmately veined, with long, thin petioles (12), giving the plant the appearance of being loosely put together. The leaves have 5 to 9 ribs and shallow lobes (6). Mallow flowers are variously described as whitish, pale blue, pale lavender (i.e., mauve), reddish purple, or pale pink veined or spotted with deeper pink (6). The fruit is a ring of 1-seeded circular carpels (12) forming green `wheels.'


M. sylvestris, M. neglecta, M. parvifrora, and M. rotundifolia are serious problems in crops only in Colombia, Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii. They are common in at least 20 other countries, particularly in the eastern Mediterranean/Middle East and South America (8). All these species originate in Eurasia, but they have become widely naturalized in North America (12). Other members of the mallow family include cotton (Gossypium L. spp.), our most valuable fiber crop; the much-loved and equally despised okra; many beautiful varieties of ornamental hibiscus (Hibiscus L. spp.); marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis L.), from whose roots were once made marshmallows (4); and other weeds such as velvetleaf (Abutilon theophrasti Medik.) and sida (Sides L. spp.).


1. Britton, N. L., and A. Brown: 1898. An Illustrated Flora of the Northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.

2. DeBray, L. 1978. The Wild Garden. Mayflower Books, Inc., New York.

3. Dioscorides. 1933. The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides. R. T. Gunther, ed. Hafner Publishing Co., Inc., New York.

4. Durant, M. 1976. Who Named the Daisy? Who Named the Rose? Dodd, Mead 8t Co., New York.

5. Fuller, T. C., and E. McClintock. 1986. Poisonous Plants of California. Univ. Calif. Press, Berkeley.

6. Georgia, A. E.1942. A Manual of Weeds. The Macmillan Co., New York.

7. Harrington, H. D. 1967. Edible Native Plants of the Rocky Mountains. Univ. N.M. Press, Albuquerque.

8. Holm, L. G., J. V. Pancho, J. P. Herberger, and D. L. Pluckuett. 1979. A Geographical Atlas of World Weeds. John Wiley & Sons, New York.

9. Jaeger, E. C. 1944. A Source-book of Biological Names and Terms (2nd Ed.). Charles C. Thomas, Springfield, IL.

10. Kingsbuy, J. M.1964. Poisonous Plants of the United States and Canada. Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

11. LeStrange, R 1977. A History of Herbal Plants. Angus dt Robertson, London.

12. Muenscher, W. C. 1935. Weeds. Macmillan Publ. Co. Inc., New York.

13. Simpson, J. A., and E.S.C. Weiner. 1989. The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

14. Spencer, E. R. 1957. Just Weeds. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.

15. Tyler, V. E.1982. The New Honest Herbal. George F. Stickiey Co., Philadelphia.

16. Woods, R S. 1944. The Naturalist's Lexicon. Abbey Garden Press, Pasadena, CA.

17. Zimdahl, R L. 1989. Weeds and Words. Iowa State Univ. Press, Ames.