Thursday, March 22, 2018

Weed Profile: Malva

Easy to recognize leaves
Welcome to the first in a series of articles about weeds at Pennsylvania Street Gardens and Pennsylvania Railroad Gardens, and how to get rid of them.

Our first subject is a rampant annual called Malva. It has pros and cos though - read on to find out what they are.

Latin name: Malva neglecta and M. parviflora ("MAL-vah neg-LECT-ah" and "MAL-vah par-vee-FLOR-ah")
Common name: Little Mallow, Cheeseweed
Originally from: M. neglecta: North Africa, central and southern Europe and south west Asia. M. parviflora: Southern Europe, North Africa and south west Asia, extending as far as Turkestan and Afghanistan.
Blooms: Flowers bloom nearly year-round. They are small, white to pale pink, and about 2/5 of an inch (1 cm) in diameter.  
Worst feature: Dreadful taproot 
Best feature: It's edible!
Height x width: Ranges from 6" x 12" for M. neglecta to 5' x 2' for M. parviflora
How best to weed: Get the taproot out
Don't mistake it for: Nasturtiums, which have a similar leaf shape, but smoother, less wave edges and big orange flowers.

Malva species look very similar. In fact, for most people, M. neglecta and M. parviflora can only be distinguished by comparing the flower petals and fruit shape. M. neglecta petals are longer than M. parviflora petals, and the fruit of M. neglecta are smooth while those of M. parviflora are wrinkled. But it doesn't really matter - they are both weeds, and we treat them both the same.

These annual plants seed prolifically, and develop a long taproot - like a thin white carrot - which is difficult to remove in dry ground, If you leave the taproot in the ground, or even part of it, the plant will regrow. And those taproots can be hard to get out!
Devilish root

With that in mind here are some of the ways we control them. First is pulling or digging out the whole taproot. This is always the best method to remove any weed, and in this case is also quite satisfying - gently pull and, if the ground is damp, the whole thing should come up. Or dig it up in drier soil. Some of these guys have massive roots though and if you don't have time or energy for removing them, cutting the plant off at the base of the leaves in one snip of the pruners will certainly slow the plant down and stop it seeding everywhere. You'll have to dig it out later, but it's an OK short term fix.

I'd consider the relative ease with which you can pull it out a "pro," but on the cons list for this plant is the fact that under certain conditions, little mallow accumulates nitrates to concentrations toxic to cattle. Poultry that eat mallow leaves or seeds can produce lower quality eggs.

There are some other pros to list though. This plant's fruit is sometimes described as looking like a tiny wheel of cheese, giving it the common name of cheeseweed.  Does it TASTE like cheese though? Let me know: all parts of this plant are edible. Rich in vitamins A and C as well as calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron and selenium, the mild-flavored leaves and flowers can be added to a salad, and the fruit can be a substitute for capers. When cooked, the leaves create a mucus very similar to okra and can be used as a thickener to soups and stews. Dried leaves can be used for tea. 

Mallow also roots release a thick mucus when boiled in water. This can be beaten to make a meringue-like substitute for egg whites. Yeah, this plant is related to the marshmallow plant (Althaea officinalis), whose sap was used to make marshmallows, leading to many happy times by the campfire.

So if you find a mallow in the garden, please do me a favor - pull it out and eat it.  :)

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