Plant Portrait - Malva moschata
All species in the genus Malva have edible leaves, and these tend to have a mild flavour and a good texture. We use them extensively, finding them greatly superior to lettuce as the bulk ingredient of a mixed salad.
One of the nicest members of the genus that we use is our native musk mallow, Malva moschata. A very easily grown plant, it will succeed in most soils though it prefers a reasonably well-drained and moderately fertile soil in a sunny position. In the wild it is found in fairly open and sunny habitats such as grassy places, pastures, hedgebanks and the sides of roads, especially on rich soils and avoiding acid soils. If you have a wildflower meadow for summer flowering plants then you have an ideal place to grow the mallow. It is a very hardy plant and will tolerate temperatures down to about -25°c when it is dormant in the winter.
The musk mallow is a very ornamental plant, especially when it is in flower in the summer. The wild form has pink flowers but there are also forms with white petals. If you cut the plant back to the ground when the flowering is almost over in the summer then you will generally be rewarded with a fresh flush of flowers in late summer.
The leaves are also quite attractive - the first leaves the plant produces in spring are entire but later leaves are very different with a high degree of laciniation. Individual plants are generally quite short-lived though they can self-sow freely when in a suitable position and usually more than maintain themselves.
We have found the plants to be fairly immune to predation - slugs seldom bother to eat it and rabbits also tend to leave it alone. However, it does have a strong tendency to get rust - little red pustules of a fungus that grows on the leaves.
The musk mallow is one of our main salad plants from mid spring to mid summer. The leaves have a very mild flavour and very little fibre - they make an excellent bulk ingredient of salads. The texture might seem a bit strange to people who are unused to it, there is a distinct gummyness and this becomes an unpleasant sliminess if the leaves are cooked. However, I have hardy met anyone who finds the gummyness of the raw leaf unpleasant, indeed this gummyness is a positive attribute of the plant since it acts as a very effective balancer to the digestive system. If you have diarrhoea then the mallow leaves will soothe the digestive tract and help to stop the diarrhoea. If you are constipated then the leaves will provide the bulk that will bring about normal motions. In addition eating the leaves also helps to soothe a dry throat and chesty coughs. Established plants can be harvested quite severely and this will tend to delay their flowering, thus extending their period of use in salads. Eventually the plants will insist on flowering and then we simply move from eating the leaves to eating the flowers. These have a similar mild flavour and slightly gummy texture with a delicate sweetness.
The musk mallow is very easy to propagate by seed and, as I said earlier, it will normally self-sow in the garden. We sow the seed in trays in a cold frame in early spring and only just cover it in compost. The seed germinates quickly and easily. Prick out the seedlings into individual pots when they are large enough to handle and plant them out in their permanent positions in the early summer. You can also increase plants by taking basal shoots in late spring - you harvest the young shoots with plenty of underground stem when they are about 8 - 10cm above the ground. Pot them up into individual pots and keep them in light shade in a cold frame or greenhouse until they are rooting well and plant them out in the summer.
The database has more details on these plants: Malva moschata.